Rare red-headed woodpecker returns

A slim skim of ice comes and goes on my pond these wavering December days. Spring seems to have returned some days, and then winter quickly grips us with cold, snowy hands. Animals such as the ermines living here are always happy when it snows, for they have a white pelage now. A Maine winter is supposed to have snow and ermines, and snow shoe hares change into white fur for the winter to match the landscape. Wearing white in a brown, snowless scene makes them easier to be caught by their enemies.

Ermines are small weasels wearing an all white coat in the winter, except for the black tip of their tail. They like high energy fat and often come to feeders for suet. These weasels hunt both night and day, for they have a high metabolism and must eat a lot to sustain life. Snowshoe hares in their white fur ‘coats’ count on the snow to hide them as they try to keep from being eaten by their enemies.

A feeder in Otter creek has been visited for a couple of weeks this month by a red-headed woodpecker. This member of the woodpecker tribe is not a resident here and is considered a rare visitor. On the park checklist, it says “No records in some years, but a general pattern of occurrence is evident.” When they do come, you can expect them in mid September through December and for a couple of weeks in late May and early June.

There is never any doubt about the adult male red-headed woodpecker, for its name describes it well. In their own territories, they are often aggressive toward other woodpeckers. The bird being seen in Otter Creek has not been readily accepted by the other birds, and they act as if it is an intruder. The red-headed woodpecker is quite skittish.

Although in the winter red-headed woodpeckers will come to a feeder, they prefer feeding on anything they can find in their environment be it insects, spiders, earthworms, birds eggs, berries, nuts, corn or mice. They are not fussy eaters. To the red-headed woodpecker, a dead tree means life and plenty to eat.

Adult red-headed woodpeckers have an entirely red head, but the young juveniles, from July through February, have a brown head, dark back and a broad white wing patch (white secondaries). You could easily mistake a juvenile for some other bird or just be mystified!

Just off island, both cowbirds and a few red-winged blackbirds have been seen over the fields. They should be gone by the end of this month. We already have had some unseasonably warm weather along with severe winter storms making life for all creatures a little topsy turvy. At the end of this week, on the Dec. 27, an annual bird count will be going on, and field observers will be out and about regardless of the weather looking for any birds that can be found on land or at sea. There are always a few bird surprises!

As you watch birds coming to your feeder, take a good look at the bills on these birds, even those you think you know very well. Birds are equipped with special tools for whatever type of food they eat. Birds searching for insect and grubs beneath the bark and other hidden places have tweezer-like bills. The brown creeper is an excellent example of this, but warblers also have thin bills for extracting their small bits of food. Owls, hawks and other birds of prey have hooked bills for ripping their food apart. Birds flying through the air catching big insects have big mouths and bills. Birds like the woodcock have very long bills for probing into the mud. The woodcock’s bill can actually open a bit at the tip to enable the bird to seize a reluctant worm beneath the surface of the mud and pull it out.

Great blue herons and other herons have spear-like bills for spearing fish. The merganser‘s serrated bill enables it to hang onto slippery fish. The hummingbird’s long needle-like bill is for probing deep into tubular flowers. A bird’s bill is an important tool and plays a vital role in the bird’s survival.

If you have grosbeaks with their thick, short and strong bills feeding right outside your window, watch them as they open up a sunflower seed. Finches, sparrows and buntings have bills more like canaries. Watch a crossbill eat, for its bill is very unique. The crossbill’s beak is crossed like deformed scissors yet it serves them well in extracting seeds from pine cones. When eating something else, the bird has to use some interesting techniques, but it succeeds!

My grandsons came across four ruffed grouse on a winter’s run recently. This grouse is a hardy bird and lives very well through a Maine winter. Hikers and runners often are apt to see them when they’re out and about. Usually, they are first aware of the bird’s presence when it seems to explode at their feet from behind the nearest bush in noisy, whirring flight! It can be an exciting moment!

The ruffed grouse is famous for its drumming, which is either a challenge to other males or an invitation to receptive females. Grouse have been known to drum every month of the year either day or night, but the best, intensive drumming is done in the spring as part of their courtship in March and April. It is a great wildlife sound.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

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

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