Black-backed Woodpecker!

Black-backed Woodpecker

On Sunday morning I went out hoping to see some woodland birds – various thrushes, kinglets, sparrows, Blue-headed Vireos and Winter Wrens are all moving through now, and I was looking forward to seeing some of these birds. However, rain was in the forecast, and as I wasn’t sure how much time I had before it was supposed to start, I started my outing with a brief walk at Sarsaparilla Trail. I found lots of activity on the pond – several mallards, American Black Ducks and Hooded Mergansers were scattered among the hundreds of Canada Geese present, while a single Great Blue Heron was fishing patiently on the opposite shore. I was surprised there weren’t any other waterfowl species on the water or tucked among the reeds, and although I spent some time scanning the pond in case any Green-winged Teal or Wood Ducks were hiding amongst all the other birds, my search turned up nothing. Similarly, I found few birds of note in the woods: a few juncos and a single Golden-crowned Kinglet were the only migrants that I found, though the usual chickadees, nuthatches, robins, and a single Brown Creeper were present.

A little disappointed, I headed over to the Old Quarry Trail next, though I didn’t think I’d have time to do my full route. I heard the usual nuthatches and another Brown Creeper in the woods, and took the side path to the “Deer George” feeder to see if any food had been left out for the deer and birds. There wasn’t anything of interest in the clearing, so when I heard a quiet tapping nearby I decided to track it down. It was coming from another side trail a short distance away, and when I caught a glimpse of the woodpecker I was startled to see the solid black back of a Black-backed Woodpecker as she hammered away at a tree.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpeckers are uncommon in our area, and are most often seen in the late fall and winter. They are attracted to the larvae of wood-boring beetles living in distressed trees, such as those burned in recent fires or infested beyond repair, as was the case a few years ago when many of Ottawa’s ash trees succumbed to the uncontrollable infestation of Emerald Ash Borer beetles. These woodpeckers don’t show up every year, however; none at all had been seen in the Ottawa area last winter, to my knowledge, so I needed this species for my year list. I was definitely not expecting to see one when I set out this morning, so I was quite thrilled with the find!

Black-backed Woodpecker

The Old Quarry Trail is a repeat site for the Black-backed Woodpecker, as there are lots of ash and pine trees for them to dine on. At least two females spent the winter of 2014-15 here, and I like to think that this one was one of them. It will be interesting to see if she stays, and if any more turn up.

As I normally only see Black-backed Woodpeckers in the winter months, it was a little strange to see her surrounded by green leaves; it was akin to seeing a Snow Bunting surrounded by sunflowers, for example, or a Scarlet Tanager on a snowy branch.

Black-backed Woodpecker

When I left the woodpecker she was still busy exhuming the beetle larvae from the tree. I continued my walk around the main loop of the trail, coming across two Swamp Sparrows in the marsh along the boardwalk and several White-throated Sparrows and juncos along the trail. It started to rain while I was deep in the trail system, coming down heavily enough that I gave up on the idea of exploring any of the side trails for interesting migrants. I was disappointed that I didn’t see any Fox Sparrows, but a Golden-crowned Kinglet and two Hermit Thrushes on my way out made up for their absence.

The rain wasn’t coming down as hard by the time I reached the Eagleson storm water ponds, so I decided to take a quick look before heading home. The Red-breasted Merganser was still present, as were two Herring Gulls, a single American Pipit, and 10 Killdeer. The sparrow field was busy, and I counted four species: Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Song Sparrow. One of the juvenile White-crowned Sparrows perched on a metal post briefly in the rain, resulting in one of my best photos of this species.

White-crowned Sparrow

Despite the gloomy day I was able to see quite a few birds, though the Black-backed Woodpecker was definitely the highlight. I hope she decides to spend the winter here, as this is one of my favourite winter birds, and one I don’t see often enough.


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