After the Fire

Black-backed Woodpecker

Back in July, the day before my fiancé and I left for our trip to Alberta, a large fire broke out in Stony Swamp only a few kilometres from our house. The fire department estimates that between 40 and 50 hectares burned altogether; although it has been referred to as a “brush fire” rather than a forest fire, many trees were affected, some of which fell down completely, others of which were merely charred. Large, uncontrolled fires are rare in our area, but the drought had created exceptionally dry conditions this past summer so it isn’t surprising that this fire grew to such a large size or took a couple of days to bring completely under control.

Lime Kiln Trail

Although forest fires can be disastrous, they are beneficial more often than not. Forests need to burn every now and then to survive; otherwise, the trees’ reproduction rates decrease. This is because a thick litter composed of leaves and other vegetation builds up on the forest floor, preventing seeds from germinating. Meanwhile, the large trees become larger, creating a thick canopy that blocks out the light. Fires help by thinning the forest, which opens up the canopy and allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. It also reduces the litter which, if allowed to build up over decades, provides fuel for larger, more destructive fires, and recycles the nutrients from dead wood and leaf litter into mineral-rich ash. This is why many places, including Yosemite National Park and all of Canada’s National Parks, use controlled fires to burn away the excess debris on the forest floor. Fire aids in regeneration by providing ideal growing conditions.

Forest fires are beneficial to animals, too, by providing a new source of food. The new growth that develops after the fire provides food for moose and deer. Wood-boring beetles are quick to colonize newly burned trees, and these bring woodpeckers which feed on the larvae beneath the bark. The Black-backed Woodpecker is one woodpecker that specializes in the larvae of beetles which proliferate in newly burned areas.

Lime Kiln Trail

When I heard that a Black-backed Woodpecker had been seen in the burned area of Stony Swamp this fall I wasn’t surprised; however, I was surprised that it had moved in so quickly after the fire. I figured it would take at least a year before any beetle colony became large enough to attract the attention of these uncommon boreal birds, and planned to check out the area in the spring. That plan changed when I saw the report, and I headed there on what turned out to be the last nice day of the season.

I accessed the area via the Lime Kiln Trail, which runs in a straight line between Richmond Road and Moodie Drive. I had only visited it once, and was disappointed by how unproductive it was for birds; the first section of the trail (about 0.5 kilometres in length) passes through a thin section of wood surrounded on each side by a large marsh. The woods here aren’t thick enough to attract forest-loving birds such as Wood Thrushes, Pileated Woodpeckers, or Ovenbirds, but are just thick enough to prevent a satisfying view of the marsh beyond. A couple of chickadees were looking for handouts, and a handsome Fox Sparrow was foraging for fallen seed on the trail.

Lime Kiln Trail

At the end of the marsh, the path enters the larger forest after crossing a small boardwalk. I saw what looked like three small beech trees in a large open area and stopped to photograph their golden yellow leaves (if I’m wrong in my identification of these leaves, please feel free to correct me).

Beech Leaves

I found the ruins of the old lime kiln in an area dominated by cedars. Built by Francis Flood in the late 1800s on a miniature escarpment of exposed limestone bedrock, this kiln is one of the few remaining examples of a 19th century industrial lime kiln in Canada. Most lime producers went out of business in the early 1900s following the construction of newer and larger industrial kilns and the introduction of Portland cement from Europe. The Flood kiln ceased operation around 1906, and the site was abandoned and fell into disrepair. The ruins of the kiln were rediscovered in the early 1970s; the site was restored in 1999.

Ruins along the Lime Kiln Trail

Ruins along the Lime Kiln Trail

Just past the ruins I came across a chain blocking the trail and signs warning of unsafe conditions. It was not difficult to slip around it, and into the woods beyond. At first I couldn’t see any signs a large fire had roared through the area. Then, a few metres further, I stepped out of the forest and into a strange, blackened, barren landscape as alien as the moon itself. A few black, spindly tree trunks still stood while others lay at crazy angles. The ground itself seemed burnt, and I saw large numbers of small rocks that had cracked and broken from the heat of the fire. The whole area smelled faintly of a long-extinguished campfire, and I had to be careful not to brush up against any of the charred wood for fear of getting ashes on my clothes.

Damaged by Fire

It was not an entirely dead world. A few green ferns had already taken root in the burnt area, as had a few other plants I couldn’t identify; though small, there were enough of them to make me realize the charred landscape would not remain black for very long.

New Growth

Several insects buzzed by me, including a couple of Autumn Meadowhawks taking advantage of the warm fall day (it was 23°C). Birds flew by overhead, including three White-winged Crossbills which landed in the top of a tall spruce tree long enough for me to see their streaky yellow and red colouration and white wing-bars. (They were too far away to see the crossed mandibles.) I also heard a Pine Siskin as it flew over the burn site.

There were woodpeckers, too, of course. These were the only birds within the actual burn site, though I heard a Brown Creeper calling somewhere close by. Whenever I heard something tapping, I followed the sound to its source; usually the culprit was a Hairy Woodpecker working away at a dead tree. There were at least four of them in the burn site, along with a single Downy Woodpecker. Then I saw a bird fly out from a group of cedars. It landed on a trunk about five feet off the ground and had a solid black back, identifying it as a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Black-backed Woodpecker

It was a female, as evidenced by the solid black cap; males have a yellow patch on the forehead. She also had black and white barring on her sides and flanks, which helps distinguish this species from all other woodpeckers in our area except for the American Three-toed Woodpecker. Also like the American Three-toed Woodpecker, the Black-backed Woodpecker has three rather than four toes on each foot. These two species have lost inner rear toe (the hallux), which may help deliver stronger blows, but reduces these woodpeckers’ climbing ability.

The solid black back of this bird provides camouflage in its preferred habitat of recently burned areas; these woodpeckers disappear against the blackened wood of a burned tree. Even the barring along their sides resembles the pattern of burnt wood.


While Black-backed Woodpeckers may feed on spiders, centipedes, some fruits and seeds, and parts of the inner bark of trees on occasion, their preferred food is the long, white, larvae of the White-Spotted Sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus). When a forest fire breaks out, the distressed conifers release terpineol vapors into the air. Terpineol is a naturally-occurring alcohol that is found in pine oil and attracts White-spotted Sawyers searching for distressed trees in which to lay their eggs. The eggs are laid beneath the bark and, after hatching, the grub-like larvae spend two years feeding on the wood inside the dead tree.

Larval tunnels beneath the bark

The Black-backed Woodpeckers are able to detect recently burned areas from great distances. They prefer forests where most of the standing dead trees are nine inches in diameter or larger and still have bark. The woodpeckers usually stay for only two to three years after a fire. If the supply of dead trees and beetles is large enough, these woodpeckers may mate and raise another generation. While raising a family, a Black-backed Woodpecker may consume over 13,000 larvae in a year. These woodpeckers typically forage on the trunks of dead trees, on larger tree limbs and on fallen timber. They typically obtain food by stripping pieces of bark from the tree, but may also peck or glean insects from tree trunks, or make deep excavations into wood. It is thought that the Black-backed woodpecker is better adapted than other Picoides species at extracting wood-boring beetle larvae.

Black-backed Woodpecker

The female Black-backed Woodpecker hitched her way up the tree as I watched, tapping as she went. When she tired of working on that tree, she flew down and landed low on another tree close by. Shortly after that a Hairy Woodpecker flew in and landed on the same tree, making agitated squeaking noises. The Hairy Woodpecker began moving up the tree trunk toward the Black-backed Woodpecker, causing the Black-backed Woodpecker to flee. She landed on a nice horizontal trunk only about five feet above the ground, and I thought this would make for some stellar photography until a moment later the Hairy Woodpecker flew in and landed on the same trunk, repeating the process. Hairy Woodpeckers have been observed displacing Black-backed Woodpeckers from foraging sites in burned areas, which supports the belief that Black-backed Woodpeckers may compete with other Picoides woodpeckers for food resources after a forest fire. Eventually the Black-backed Woodpecker flew off to a stand of much taller trees, where I lost her against the black bark some 20 feet above the ground.

Black-backed Woodpecker

This was only the second time I’ve seen a Black-backed Woodpecker in Ottawa, and the sighting made my day. I’ll have to keep an eye on this site and see how long she stays. Hopefully the NCC won’t move in and begin removing all the burned trees in order to get the trail open again.


10 thoughts on “After the Fire

  1. When 3-toed woodpeckers work a tree it sounds like someone using a chisel. It’s not the tapping or hammer-drilling of a Hairy or Downy. A little tip to save some steps so you’re not off on a wild woodpecker chase. Nice pics you got.

    • Thanks Chris, I’ll have to remember that. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the sounds she was making once I found her, I was just thrilled to see her!

    • Thanks Andy! By the way, I visit your site all the time trying to ID Ontario wildflowers. I’d love to visit Burwash sometime and see some of your flora and fauna!

  2. Really enjoyed this post–you even taught me some things I didn’t know despite my recent research on boreal woodpeckers! I too have seen the Hairy Woodpeckers follow her, and then summarily displace her from a tree. It’s like they rely on her to pick a good spot and then take it over 😛 Actually though this could produce some really good photos…I once watched her posturing at a hairy with spread wings and wished I had my camera to catch the interaction.

    That first, straight stretch of Lime Kiln Trail can be great for birds, BTW. In migration I’ve seen a variety of warblers and kinglets there. The owl was there. Recently I saw a Pileated Woodpecker just past the parking lot, in a tree eating berries. Didn’t even realize Pileateds ate berries.

    • Thanks Suzanne! Yes, I began my research in the usual spots, then went on trying to find out what specific wood-boring species they ate. Once I learned that they ate White-spotted Sawyers, I started researching these beetles and found more info. It was a fun post to research and write.

      Until my visit at the end of October, I had never visited this trail in migration (the first time I visited was in the summer). I can see how the trees along the first stretch might attract warblers and other birds. Deb and I visited last weekend, and had a Pileated Woodpecker right near the parking lot (the same one as yours?) and some Common Redpolls along this stretch. We also had Pine Grosbeaks in the burn site, but no Black-backed Woodpecker.

  3. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

  4. Way cool! I’ve yet to see a Black-backed Woodpecker. We theoretically could have them around here, though, so I’ll have to see if anyone can give me tips on burned-over woods to check out.

    • Good luck with your search, Rebecca! They are a tough bird to find here in Ottawa, and tend to be found only in the fall/winter. I’ve seen them at three different trails all within Stony Swamp, though only one trail was burned…sometimes finding one just takes luck!

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