Nature: Sorting out the woodpeckers

A unique visitor has been appearing in Manset recently in the form of a red-headed woodpecker. These birds are not at all common here.

We do have several resident woodpeckers on Mount Desert Island which live here year-round. They are the downy woodpecker, the hairy woodpecker, the pileated woodpecker and the rare three-toed woodpecker and black-backed woodpecker. Migrant flickers and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers are seen during the nesting period. Of all of these birds, the red-headed woodpecker is considered rare indeed.

The red-headed woodpecker recently seen in Manset was a juvenile bird, as its head was not the colorful red of the adult male. Fully adult male birds are exceptionally beautiful. When encountering such birds, one thinks less about color and more about size, shape, crest (or the lack thereof), type of bill, behavior and what it was eating. All such clues help far with identification far more than color.

We have numerous identification experts here on MDI, and a photo of the bird is a big help in figuring out what you have seen. A rare species will bring the experts to your door.

Red-headed woodpeckers have a long bristly tongue to help extract tree sap. Although male birds of this species have a flaming red head, immature birds are less colorful. Pay attention to their posture on a tree trunk and how they act. This is a good bird to be watching for here on MDI right now.

The red-bellied woodpecker is also a possible visitor each winter. Its name is not particularly helpful since it does not have a red belly, as the name implies. The male bird only has bright red on the crown of his head and nape (the back of his neck). The females have red only on their napes. This bird’s chest and belly are whitish, and the back is barred black and white.

You know right away it is a woodpecker of some kind. Like all woodpeckers, they are well-adapted for spending their lives on tree trunks looking for food.

If you are new to this island, you should get yourself a copy of the official “Birds of Acadia National Park” checklist, or look it up online. The list has slowly changed, as new facts have been discovered, and birds such as mockingbirds and cardinals, just as examples, have moved from seasonal visitors to year-round birds here on this island, as the climate has changed. This has occurred with numerous birds. I have lived here since l972 and have witnessed many changes in bird activity.

A lovely fox sparrow made an appearance at a friend’s home. Sparrows sometimes get overlooked, but this particular one is a real beauty. They are only here from October until January and then briefly again in April, so try to get a good look while you can.

Many years ago, a naturalist friend called this bird “a runner-up in a beauty show.” I liked that. It is a larger sparrow than some of this group, and it gets its name from the rufous-red upper side of its tail as well as the “foxy” color on its wings and back.

Watch it for awhile and you’ll see its habit of scratching backwards with both feet at the same time. It is searching for insects and seeds. It does this with great vigor, using both feet at the same time and making things fly. This makes it so interesting to watch!

When they stop on the island they are on their way from their Canadian breeding ground to their winter range in the middle states and southward. Look for them in the woods and thickets and at your feeding areas. Briefly in the spring we may see them again as they pass through on their way north. At this time you might be lucky enough to hear them sing in their “flute-like” voice. Enjoy them whenever they are here.

A sharp-shinned hawk was seen doing a bit of odd behavior at a friend’s feeding area. This hawk is usually known for its skill in capturing birds on the wing. This time, however, the sharp-shinned hawk was walking around on the ground and peering into a hole, presumably in search of a small mammal. The behavior was definitely a bit odd, but when you’re hungry, you’ll try whatever works!

Backyard bird feeders do present an unnatural source of food, and these hawks definitely take advantage of the situation, but they are lone hunters and are a natural predator for smaller birds, most of which are wary enough to escape being caught. Hawks do not hunt in groups; they are solitary hunters. Don’t begrudge them a meal, and enjoy seeing them!

The sharp-shinned hawk is a small woodland hawk with rounded wings and a long square-tipped notched tail. One of the good things about this hawk’s hunting habits at your feeders is that it culls the bird visitors by taking the slow and possibly sick birds that often congregate there. It keeps the flocks healthy by removing the slow ones. The gathering of numerous birds at feeders is not a natural condition.

My thanks to all of you who have sent in evening grosbeak reports. These colorful birds are certainly visiting MDI in great numbers this winter.

Send any questions, reports or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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