Woodpecker welcome!

My celebration for the arrival of 2016 happened on 21 January, when I had my first nature walk of the year. It was delayed by a hospitalization at the start of the year and home treatments for a couple weeks after that. When a relatively warm and sunny day arrived, I just had to get out there despite still dealing with some recovery-related issues. I chose the North Carolina Botanical Garden as my venue since it has plenty of benches for short rests in between walking. It was simply lovely.

pileated woodpecker I77A7321© Maria de BruynMy first bird of the day was a beautiful male pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), a harbinger of the day’s theme – the woodpeckers were my welcome committee!

Loud rhythmic hammering had me searching the snags among the tall trees for the next greeter – it reminded me of the facts I had learned about woodpeckers and their adaptations to a pecking life.

downy woodpecker I77A7372© Maria de BruynIt turned out to be a diminutive downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), whose hammering sounds were enhanced by the hollow stem with which he was busy.

Next up was a lovely female yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) who was very industriously flitting from branch to branch in search of sustenance.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7419© Maria de Bruynyellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7582© Maria de Bruyn

When flattened against tree trunks, she demonstrated how well camouflaged her back feathers make her. A male sapsucker showed it, too.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7476© Maria de Bruyn

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7860© Maria de Bruyn res

red-bellied woodpecker I77A8242© Maria de BruynA red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rounded out the welcoming committee.

The other birds didn’t disappoint. Several species were in the woods and at the feeders near the Garden’s bird blind. A lovely Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) flitted about. A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) was singing.

 

Carolina chickadee I77A7639© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse I77A7388© Maria de Bruyn

 

white-breasted nuthatch I77A8203© Maria de Bruyn

 

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) foraged on tree trunks overhead. A Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) posed among red winter berries.

 

Northern mockingbird I77A7737© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush I77A7658© Maria de Bruyn

 

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) emerged near the bird blind, and then the same bird or another seemed to accompany me as I walked another part of the native habitats garden.

 

hermit thrush I77A7818© Maria de Bruyn

hermit thrush I77A7788© Maria de Bruyn res

Later, a male sapsucker (identifiable by his red throat) appeared near the Paul Green cabin, where he had been busy working on his sapwells.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7858© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7854© Maria de Bruyn res

Shortly thereafter a downy woodpecker came to the same spot and sampled sap (or something else) from the row of holes left by the sapsucker! That was a nice example of how what one animal does can benefit another, too.

downy woodpecker I77A7912© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A7921© Maria de Bruyn res

During a plant interlude, I was surprised to see some Southern purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) that had not yet shriveled up in the cold.

Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8086© Maria de Bruyn Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8081© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When, I was leaving, a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) alighted overhead,

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8165© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8164© Maria de Bruyn

a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, and one more woodpecker made an appearance – a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) high up behind some branches in a tall tree. I was using my small zoom lens so the photo quality isn’t great, but you can see that s/he was there.

red-bellied wooodpecker I77A8234© Maria de Bruyn Northern flicker I77A8154© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A8006© Maria de BruynThe only woodpeckers that are common in our town that I missed were the red-headed and hairy woodpeckers – it was truly a woodpecker welcome and a really lovely start to my wildlife photography outings for this year!

Pines, habitat loss and endangered woodpeckers

longleaf pine IMG_0016©Maria de Bruyn resLongleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) grow for 100-150 years before they reach full size and they can live as long as 500 years. Their extremely long needles give the young trees the look of a spike with grass growing out of it. At the tops of trees, the long, fanned out needles paint a pretty picture when silhouetted against the sky, even on overcast and dull days.

longleaf pine IMG_0015©Maria de Bruyn res

RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9109©Maria de Bruyn RESUnfortunately, the longleaf pine forests have dwindled in size as a result of logging and this has contributed to the endangerment of a unique bird – the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis).

 

The longleaf pine has a rough bark and plentiful resin, so much so that tree stumps impregnated with the resin will not rot. The heartwood of the old pines also becomes saturated with the resin.

longleaf pine IMG_9042©Maria de Bruyn reslong-leaf pine IMG_9025©Maria de Bruyn res

When the longleaf pine forests were still plentiful, the red-cockaded woodpecker evolved into a very specialized bird species as far as nesting is concerned. They mainly nest in longer-lived longleaf pines, preferring trees that are infected with red heart fungus as this softens the wood and makes it easier for the birds to dig out a nest cavity. They are the only woodpecker species that makes nest cavities in living rather than dead trees.

longleaf pine IMG_9035©Maria de Bruyn resThe nest cavities are constructed by a family of birds and completing one can take as long as two years (or longer). The families work on several cavities at a time and you will find clusters of trees with nest holes in given areas. The cavities are pecked out in such a way that the tree releases resin around the nest hole and you will see trees that are covered with long thick strands of resin coming down from nests.

The woodpeckers employ this tactic because the heavy flow of resin helps to keep tree-climbing snakes away from their nests, eggs and chicks. A breeding male will scout various nest cavities and then roost in the most recent cavity with the heaviest flow of pitch. The female lays the eggs and then the male incubates them during the night-time hours.

red-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9103©Maria de Bruyn resRaising the young becomes a cooperative effort as older sons remain with the parents and help incubate, brood and feed the babies. Family groups can range from three to nine or more members. The female offspring only rarely stay with their breeding parents as they move off in search of their own mates.

These woodpeckers mainly eat insects, including ants, beetles, roaches, and wood-boring insects as well as caterpillars and spiders. The family will forage as a group and sometimes also eat fruit and berries. Their abandoned nest cavities are used by other birds and small mammals.

red-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9152 ©Maria de BruynThe species is now considered vulnerable to extinction, with only about 12,500 of these birds remaining in the Southern United States. This is equivalent to about one per cent of the original population of this woodpecker. In response, there are now conservation efforts being undertaken to preserve the longleaf pine forests as habitat for the red-cockaded woodpeckers.

 

 

long-leaf pine IMG_0013©Maria de Bruyn resAt the Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area in South Carolina, as well as in the Sandhills areas of South and North Carolina, forest rangers and others are working to enhance the longleaf pine forests for the birds. Controlled burns are clearing out dense undergrowth as the woodpeckers prefer sites with less deciduous growth; you can see them foraging quite low on trees.

In some areas, wildlife management projects are trying to help out the birds by creating artificial cavities, into which man-made nests are inserted. Restrictor plates around the holes also serve to stop other species from enlarging the holes or shape of the nest hole so that the red-cockaded woodpeckers will keep using them.

longleaf pine IMG_9040©Maria de Bruyn res longleaf pine IMG_9030©Maria de Bruyn res

At the Santee Coastal Reserve, several such nest holes can be observed alongside other trees where the birds are making their own nest cavities. Trees with nest holes are banded with white tape so that rangers can keep an eye on the woodpeckers’ activity.

longleaf pine IMG_9046©Maria de Bruyn resRED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9229©Maria de Bruyn RES

It is heartwarming to see the efforts being made to restore the longleaf pine forests and the habitat for the woodpeckers – perhaps this will prevent this species from going extinct. And the National Wildlife Federation has stated that research shows that long-leaf pine forests will be especially well adapted to coping with environmental changes caused by global warming.

RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER IMG_9214©Maria de Bruynred-cockaded woodpecker IMG_9165 ©Maria de Bruyn

Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0654© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0700© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0742© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8082© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8096© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8788© Maria de Bruyn resred-headed woodpecker IMG_1880© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.

 

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0574© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0576© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8625© Maria de Bruyn

 

As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9202© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8734© Maria de Bruyn res

When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8345© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_9104© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_1587© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8332© Maria de Bruyn res

As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0605© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0707© Maria de Bruyn