Monday, November 27, 2006

North Country Nature Notes

My Little Chickadee

One of the thrills of spending time at Mom and Dad's is that they have created a true haven for the birds and animals. There are several bird feeders in the yard, complete with sunflower seeds for the songbirds and squirrels, suet for the woodpeckers and jays, and a heated birdbath that is enjoyed by all. In the nighttime, the nocturnal flying squirrels even show up to partake in some good eats and put on an aerial display under the yard lights!

Without question, their faithful resident bird is the black-capped chickadee. Virtually everyone recognizes them, as they are common, abundant, and seen at bird feeders everywhere all year long. They are friendly birds, too. So friendly, in fact, that it isn't unusual to have them actually land on people.

Whenever I visit, I like to try and feed the chickadees by hand. It is not very hard at Mom and Dad's, especially in the colder months. I was successful, and this time I even got to learn a few things about this fantastic bird.

Armed with a cup of sunflower seeds, I walked down the hill from the house. I would stand in a spot for a little while with a handful of seeds extended. It didn't take long before a little chickadee found me. He was a cute and particularly chatty guy with a lot of personality, and he was recognizable because his tail feathers had a slight bend to the right (nothing disfiguring, mind you, it was just a feature that easily distinguished him from others). We seemed to develop an instant rapport, and immediately he flew down to my hand and started taking seeds.

Me with my little buddy, photo by Dad

That day I wandered all over the woods, and the chickadee would follow. It didn't matter where I went, or how far. He would find me.

It was interesting to see the feeding habits of the chickadee. When he was taking seeds, he wasn't eating most of them. Rather, he was storing them for winter. Each individual seed was taken to a different location, be it wedged in the bark of a spruce tree, the fork of a branch, or even a broken off tree limb. There was no pattern or system, and there would be no centrally-located cache of seeds for him to revisit later. Every single seed was placed in a different spot.

I figured these efforts had to be, for the most part, in vain. How would the chickadee keep track of where he was putting of these seeds? I mean, they were truly all over the place! After doing some reading, I learned that chickadees are capable of remembering thousands of locations where they store food. And how many of us would be completely lost if we didn't have a list when we went to the grocery store? Amazing!

For the rest of the week whenever I would go outside, my little chickadee would find me. He was in the yard most of the time at the feeders with the others (again, easy to spot because of his tail). But if I didn't see him right away, it didn't take long for him to locate me. It got to a point where here would fly straight to my hand from deep in the forest as if he were a trained falcon. On a couple of occasions he missed my hand and landed on my hat!

Great fun. Dad now has the task of keeping my buddy entertained until I return at Christmas! :)

In Search of the Black-backed Woodpecker

In one of my posts from October, I described my first sighting of a black-backed woodpecker, one of the more elusive birds of the northern boreal forests. It has apparently been a good year for them, as there have been many reported sightings, including those by my Dad and brother very close to the house.

I was walking down a trail in the woods on a morning bird watching/chickadee feeding excursion. Out of the corner of my eye, a dark bird flew in and landed on a tree perhaps 15 feet from me. It was a female black-backed woodpecker! I couldn't believe it. After watching her for a minute or so, she flew down the hill to another location.

I was within sight of the house, so I ran back to get Dad. I knew he would want to se this bird, so I thought we could possibly track her down since she was in the area.

Venturing back down the hill, I pointed out the place I had seen the bird. All was quiet in this area, so we continued on the trail.

Not far from the spot of the first sighting, we heard a gentle tapping sound coming from a dark stand of cedars and spruce. We headed into the forest to check it out.

A large spruce tree had fallen into another one, and at the top was a gnarled mess of twigs and branches. In that mess, we could see a shadow of a woodpecker happily working. It was difficult to see. From some of the preliminary markings, we thought we had found the black-backed again, as I did catch a glimpse of the trademark barring on its side beneath the wing. However, when the woodpecker did come into view, we were astonished at what we had found.

This was not a black-backed woodpecker. Rather, it was the cousin, the American three toed woodpecker!

Both the black-backed and the American three-toed woodpeckers have something in common; they are our only two woodpeckers with three toes instead of four! But one feature on the American three-toed that distinguished it from its relative in the "ladder" pattern on its back. We were looking at a female American three-toed woodpecker. She pecked away for a good 15 minutes or so, seemingly oblivious to us while Dad attempted to snap some photos.

This is significant for me because I had only seen the American three-toed woodpecker once in my life, and that was more than 20 years ago near Grand Rapids. And how crazy is it that I saw both of these rare, unique birds within 30 minutes of, and perhaps a hundred yards away from, each other? Awesome!

The woodpeckers, along with my friendly chickadee, represent birding moments at their finest. It doesn't get much better.
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