Nature: Woodpeckers come knocking

“What do you do with a drunken sailor?” goes the popular old song. This week we could say “What do you do with a large drunken woodpecker?”

I had an email from a friend in Manset telling me about a pileated woodpecker that has been eating too many fermented berries in a tree near her and the bird is out of control and definitely “tipsy.” With all the traffic diverted that way from Bass Harbor because of bridge repairs being done, the bird is living dangerously.

Birds can’t fly well in this condition and often just sit on the ground or even fall off a branch when they eat too much fermented fruit.

It may sound funny but could be dangerous for the birds. I once saw a flock of robins in Ellsworth near the town hall just sitting on the ground since they couldn’t fly until they sobered up. Predators could easily have caught them since they couldn’t fly. An inebriated large woodpecker must be a sight to see and hear.

Pileated woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers on Mount Desert Island and they live here year round. They’re noisy birds especially when raising their young. They are especially noticeable as they swoop across our roads and when they are pecking away on some infested tree.

The bird knows by listening very carefully what is inside a tree trunk. If the tree is infested but is basically sound, the bird taps away and makes a rectangular hole so it can eat whatever is in there. If the tree is otherwise well, the hole heals up nicely and the tree is in better shape. If these woodpeckers attack an older, unhealthy tree they will clean out the infestation.

These large crow-sized woodpeckers with their flaming red crests are great fun to watch as they work on a tree and they usually don’t mind being watched.

I like to call them our “tree surgeons,” as they peck away at the trees in order to make the forest healthier. They are seen all over this island.

Our other island woodpeckers are all much smaller. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are small birds looking very much alike but the hairy is the larger of the two coming to your feeders. At certain times of the year I hear about red-bellied woodpeckers being seen here and there. They are not native here and are only visitors. A red-headed woodpecker was seen in Manset last year and looked to be nesting but I have not had a follow up report so I don’t know about that. The person sent me a nice photo of it.

Northern flickers come to this island to nest but are not year round birds. The yellow-bellied sapsucker comes here to nest but they are not year round birds. The three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers have been seen here but there are no nesting reports that I know of. The yellow-bellied sapsucker is seasonal .You can find evidence of these birds if you look at the bark of olds apple trees. They drill even rows of holes around the tree trunk that are quite interesting to see. Check out all the local apple tree trunks for these interesting holes.

At this time of year the spruce grouse here on the island eat wild berries. In winter they survive on shoots, foliage and buds of trees such as spruce, larch and fir. When available they also eat insects as well as parts of low growing plants. The young subsist on insects and spiders.

We have both the ruffed grouse and the spruce grouse living here. Both are chicken-like birds that really do scratch for a living! Of the two grouse, it is the spruce grouse that is friendlier, as a rule. It will sometimes expect you to move out of the way on a trail so it can pass. A long distance hiker friend of mine actually picked one up out of the way to get by. Grouse are smaller than pheasants and do not have a long tail.

Any of you who spend time along the shore watching ducks have no doubt noticed the eiders in varying plumages. The young immature males may even look like a new species with their mottled black/brown and white appearance. Immature males though still have that distinctive sloping bill. Know them by the sloping bill and the company they keep.

Guillemots are still changing their summer look to that of winter and they can fool you. In the summer the guillemot is mainly black with little white on the wings. In the winter it is white with a touch of black. At all seasons it has bright red feet and a red lining to its mouth The mouth lining is seen if the bird happens to yawn and the feet are visible if the bird happens to scratch its head while you’re looking.

Foliage is still lovely colors, red fruit is abundant and both beautiful to see. The colors this season have been especially lovely. Black alder or winterberry holly now have bright red berries very visible next to the twigs. Check in a good shrub book or on line to figure out what you have found. I always keep a shrub book handy so I can be sure of what I’m seeing. The berry harvest is good this year. Enjoy this fall season on MDI.

Send any questions, photos or observations 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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