Wildlife is not always predictable and certainly doesn’t always go ‘by the book’. A column reader told me about an interesting observation this week. She still has her hummingbird feeder out even though most hummingbirds have left for the south. She was very surprised to see a hairy woodpecker dipping its beak into the sweet liquid and taking long drinks. We humans often get accused of having a ‘sweet tooth.’ This is a case of a ‘sweet beak.’ I had never heard of one doing this.
Birds of all sizes are feasting on the abundant wild fruit available all over this island. A beautiful pileated woodpecker found some small red fruit on some shrubs in my neighborhood and was gobbling them up as fast as it could, according to one of my neighbors. This large woodpecker is a special favorite of mine, and I never tire of seeing them. They land with a flourish and vigorously attack dead, rotting logs, stumps and decaying trees in their search for grubs and wood-boring insects. These feathered ‘tree surgeons’ do not do exploratory surgery. When they attack a tree, they know there is food in there, and they go to work. Pileated woodpeckers do not kill the trees they work on. If the tree is basically healthy, but has some sort of insect threatening it, the bird removes the insects, and the tree will then become more healthy because of it. A tree already dying will just provide an abundance of insect food, and the woodpecker feasts on the insects inside.
Until recent years, the pileated woodpecker was known only as a bird of the deep forests and wilderness area, but unlike some bird species, this crow-sized woodpecker has adapted to the presence of humans and is now seen all over the island, even along busy highways and in yards and gardens where dead or dying trees are found. They still need tracts of woodlands in which to raise their young, but they have adapted to second growth forests and younger trees. The bird’s “you, yuk, yuk” call rapidly repeated is exciting to hear and definitely announces the bird’s presence in the woods nearby.
Even if you do not hear or see this flamboyant, noisy woodpecker, you can easily see the holes they have dug in both dead and living trees all over the island. The holes are rectangular in shape and very large. After the bird has drilled into the tree, it uses its long sticky tongue to catch and extract ants or whatever else it has found through the partially exposed tunnel system. If the tree is basically healthy, the holes will heal in time.
Pileated woodpeckers are seen throughout the year. Sightings are very often made, and the birds frequently heard on the trail around Eagle Lake. The Little Long Pond Area is also a very good location to see their holes and to hear them.
Anywhere you find mountain ash trees and their bright red-orange berries, you will find birds avidly feeding these October days. Such trees near my house are alive with many kinds of birds. Several of the thrush family –
wood thrush, robin and hermit – visit the trees every day. Planting for the birds is an excellent way to make your surroundings beautiful and to naturally feed wild birds. It’s an excellent way to provide wild food throughout the winter.
A gardener friend of mine found an interesting insect this week in the form of a preying mantis. No matter whether you call it a ‘praying’ or a ‘preying’ mantis, its proper name is mantis religiosa. These strange but interesting insects often look as if they are praying, but don’t be fooled by their saintly pose; they are fierce hunters. They have two spiked forelegs than can catch and hold their prey. They are equipped with compound eyes with wide binocular vision. Most are diurnal (found in the daytime) but some fly at night, and they are attracted to lights. Preying mantis are very predatory and even eat their own siblings. If their prey resists getting caught, they eat it alive, otherwise they eat their food head first. You can find them in many parts of the world. My best sighting of one was outside of the window at a friend’s home in Sardinia. We noticed a preying mantis on the edge of the window on an outside stucco wall. As we watched it, a small lizard came wandering by, and faster than I can write these words, the mantis caught it and ate it. An unfortunate drama for the lizard, but a great wildlife observation!
Another time I was taking a close-up photograph of a colorful flower in a field in Greece when into my lens view I found myself staring eye to eye with a beautiful but fierce looking mantis. This was before digital cameras, so I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could see what the film caught. It turned out to be a good photo!
Wildlife highlights for October include yellowlegs in local marshes, dowitchers (shorebirds) along the local shores and wooly bears hurrying across roads and driveways. I timed a wooly bear this week as it crossed my driveway and found that it took exactly five minutes for the journey. It was a ‘no-nonsense’ direct journey with no hesitation at all. I last saw it moving through the grass and into the woods. They have many legs and move fluidly. Guillemots are changing into their winter plumage. All summer long on the ocean, they have been a glossy black with white wing patches. For the winter, they will be a plain grey and white. No matter what the time of year though, they always have bright red feet and a bright red throat lining. When one yawns as you look at the bird, it is quite amazing to see. Sea pigeon is a nickname for the guillemot.