A Lull in Migration

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Steady north winds for the past week have brought migration to a halt. While the temperature this week has been much warmer than last week’s cold, gray, miserable weather (20°C compared to only 8°C!), the steady winds out of the north have had a distinct bite to them and, even worse, have prevented the next big wave of birds from continuing their journey north. Very few new species have arrived, while earlier migrants appear to have moved on. I’ve been to Hurdman three times in the past week and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden once – not only have I NOT seen anything new, but have found that even the species that were present were present in very low numbers. In fact, other than a few juncos, a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a single Hermit Thrush (heard only) at the FWG, the only birds I’ve seen in these places are the common breeding birds.

Fortunately my outing on Sunday helped to make up for the disappointing weekday outings, as I was able to visit some interesting habitats. I spent a couple of hours in Stony Swamp on Sunday morning, specifically to look for marsh birds and Field Sparrows. At the Beaver Trail I counted 21 species including two Great Blue Herons flying over the parking lot and several American Tree Sparrows and juncos right at the trail entrance. One junco sat in a shrub while I scattered seed on the ground.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

I am amazed by the fact that there are still plenty of juncos around right now, while only a few White-throated Sparrows have arrived so far. A few juncos still visit my feeder from time to time (along with at least three Song Sparrows and two House Sparrows), though whether they are the same ones that overwintered here or new arrivals I can’t tell.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

I heard three White-throated Sparrows singing at the Beaver Trail, but saw none among the large flock of juncos and tree sparrows foraging on the trail. Usually I see both juncos and White-throated Sparrows feeding on the ground together; that’s when I start checking the flocks for Fox Sparrows. On the trail, I heard more birds than I saw, including a singing Purple Finch, a Wild Turkey gobbling beyond the Wild Bird Care Center, a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and several Swamp Sparrows (though I did see one hopping along the ground by the beaver dam). I heard two Wilson’s Snipe as well, one keening in the marsh and one winnowing overhead, and a distant American Bittern calling beyond the beaver lodge. I was able to spot a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker when I heard one calling from the woods off-trail.

From there I went to Jack Pine Trail where my goal was to find some Field Sparrows in the alvar. As soon as I arrived I heard an Eastern Phoebe calling but wasn’t able to spot it; one usually hangs around the large vernal pond beyond the parking lot every spring. I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapping on the metal sign near the parking lot, but wasn’t able to get close enough for any photos before it flew off.

I heard more White-throated Sparrows singing at Jack Pine, especially in the alvar where they breed along with the Field Sparrows. (I was disappointed that no Field Sparrows were singing yet.) American Tree Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Song Sparrows and juncos were also present. I heard my first Virginia Rail calling from the marsh, a Purple Finch singing, a Pine Siskin flying over, and two Pine Warblers singing in the pines.

My favourite bird of the day, however, was the male Black-backed Woodpecker at the back of the trail near the alvar. I have seen females all winter long and, despite looking for the males twice, never managed to spot one. I was watching a White-throated Sparrow and thinking about photographing it when movement in the woods behind it caught my attention. The first thing I noticed was the solid black back; then I saw the bright yellow spot on its head and realized it was a male!

Male Black-backed Woodpecker showing off his yellow cap

Male Black-backed Woodpecker showing off his yellow cap

He flew off just after I took my first picture; I wasn’t able to see where he went, but he was flying parallel to the trail, so I hurried after him. I heard some tapping and tracked down a Hairy Woodpecker in the same area. I stopped to listen and heard another woodpecker tapping on the other side of the trail. A moment later I spotted the male Black-backed Woodpecker only two feet above the ground on a tree right beside the path!

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker (click to enlarge)

I was amazed by his beauty. I am partial to woodpeckers with solid black backs – the black back of the Pileated Woodpecker reminds me of the long black cloaks worn by men in the Victorian era. The black face and black-and-white barring of the Black-backed Woodpecker gives this bird a unique look among the local woodpeckers, while the yellow spot adds a handsome splash of colour.

I wended my way through a couple of trees in order to get an unobstructed view. He seemed to be finding lots of larvae where he was working, so I decided to shoot some video. You can see his long tongue flicking out from time to time.

I even managed to take a photo showing his tongue!

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Another woodpecker hitching up a nearby tree caught my attention, and I was surprised to see it was a female. She was much deeper in the woods, and I was too enamoured of the male to try to follow her. While it seems late in the season to be seeing Black-backed Woodpeckers (they are usually thought of as winter birds), there have been other spring sightings in the OFNC circle in the past, some as late as the end of May, and one during the first week of June which is the latest spring date I am aware of (June 5, 1989). Many of these sightings took place in the 1970s and early 1980s when Dutch Elm Disease, a devastating fungal disease transmitted by the Elm Bark Beetle, reached its peak in Ottawa. The infestation of Emerald Ash Borer larvae today seems to parallel that of the Elm Bark Beetles almost 40 years ago; it seems both have played a part in attracting these northern woodpeckers to the region.

I left the Black-backed Woodpeckers, and about five minutes later had another neat woodpecker encounter when I spotted a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers on the same tree trunk.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (female)

Both were climbing up and down the tree trunk; then, a moment later, they flew to the base of the tree and spent some time investigating something on the ground.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

A few moments later, they flew black up to the tree trunk and began circling it. I am not sure if the female (the one with the white throat) was trying to evade the male, or if she was mirroring the male’s actions. It seemed to be a type of pre-courtship behavior, which is typified by one sapsucker chasing the other around the tree trunk and branches. According to Cornell, courting birds chase each other around the tree, and then stop to face each other with crest feathers raised, bills and tails high in the air, and throat feathers fluffed out. They also swing their heads from side to side. I didn’t see any of this, although once again they landed on the ground at the base of the tree, facing each other while watching the ground.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I saw four woodpecker species that day, and it only occurred to me after I left that I should have stayed longer to find a Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker, both of which are often found at Jack Pine Trail, to make it a six-species day. As it was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Black-backed Woodpecker and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on the same day before, let alone a pair of each.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (click to enlarge)

It was a great – though short – outing, and although I didn’t photograph many species, I am thrilled with the photos and video that I did take. I think I’ll have to try Jack Pine Trail again in case those Black-backed Woodpeckers stick around; it would be fun to try and see six species in one place!

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2 thoughts on “A Lull in Migration

  1. Sounds like a great day. I love the shot of the Black-Backed with his tongue out 🙂 Would you believe I’ve missed the BB woodpeckers at Jack Pine Trail all winter and spring? They’ve become my nemesis birds.

    • Me too – these are the first I’ve seen since November! I have had much better luck at Old Quarry Trail. Apparently a male was seen there this weekend (it was posted in the OFNC Facebook group). I went to both trails on Saturday but didn’t see any Black-backed Woodpeckers.

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