Sunday, April 21, 2013

Drumming Woodpeckers, The Red bellied Snake & Recent Wildflowers

A male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drills a line of holes into a maple tree
Our old woods were very quiet for most of the winter. Mixed foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets and creepers were mostly absent and few other birds seemed able to eke out a living there. Woodpeckers were present, but even they were not frequently encountered. 
The Northern Flicker recently returned to the nature preserve
Unlike most other birds, the way woodpeckers look for food is quite audible. Everything from light tapping to incredibly loud banging results from the woodpecker’s search for insects. A Pileated Woodpecker chiseling apart a dead tree - trying to get at the heart of an ant colony, or excavating a nest cavity, can be one of the loudest bird-generated sounds in the forest. To me, a Pileated at work sounds like a rogue carpenter haphazardly pounding nails into forest trees. What the hell is that guy doing in there?
The loudest bird in the forest is the Pileated Woodpecker
A Pileasted tore into the heartwood of this tree to get at a colony of Carpenter Ants
4 of the 6 species of woodpecker that reside at our nature preserve are non-migratory, and so they remain with us all year long. The other 2 species – the Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, arrive here in April from their southern wintering grounds. By the time they do arrive, many of the other woodpeckers have already begun drumming. The drumming pattern for most of our woodpecker species is similar and they are hard to distinguish from each other in the field. Most produce a rapid and even-paced volley of knocks. Once again the Pileated Woodpecker stands out. It too produces a rapid drumming, but the end of its drumming phrase tapers off to lighter, more rapid strikes.
A Sapsucker arrives at its nest hole in a White Ash Tree
Woodpeckers use drumming like other bird species use song. They drum in order to announce their territorial claims. To best do this they will seek out a tree that resonates well so that they can broadcast their proclamations as far as possible. Sometimes they’ll choose something other than trees - like a barn or a metal roof. I recall once being startled by what sounded like a machine-gun going off in the woods near me. It turned out to be a sapsucker pounding on a metal posted sign on the tree right next me. The Sapsucker’s drumming is the most distinctive of all of our woodpeckers. The bird's uneven drumming phrase has been likened to the sound of someone banging out Morse Code.
The Red-headed Woodpecker, once common in Central New York, now are quite rare
 As I was in Downtown Utica the other day, looking for Peregrine Falcons, I came upon a dead male Sapsucker. An urban center seemed an unlikely place to find a denizen of the forest, but during migration, birds will often fly through some unlikely terrains. This unfortunate individual apparently struck a building and was killed. I suspect that this happened during the day, when the bird mistook the reflection of the sky in a window as a place that could be flown through. Bird deaths caused by impacts against buildings and other tall structures are one of the leading causes of bird mortality. In the US, millions of birds – primarily nocturnal migrant songbirds, die each year from such impacts.
The Red-bellied Snake is a small and innocuous nature preserve denizen 
Yesterday I came upon a Red-bellied Snake basking in the afternoon sun. This species is the second most common snake at our nature preserve, but it is still encountered only infrequently. This small brown-backed snake has a very red underside, which is not very evident unless the reptile is turned over. They are not venomous and their small mouths and teeth pose little threat to anything but earthworms, snails and insects, which are their primary prey.
Their heads are relatively small and so are their teeth
The snakes' red underside is often hidden from view
In habits and diet, the Red-bellied Snake is much like a salamander
The Red-bellied Snake is very salamander-like in its habits. I most often find them lurking in dam mossy soil beneath logs or rocks. They are always a great pleasure to find given their vivid color and mild nature. April and May seems to be the time when I come across them most, but I think that that may be more because of my behavior than theirs, since I do most of my planting and woodland garden work at this time.

A turn towards mild weather has brought out the earliest woodland wildflowers.

The first wildflower to bloom this season was the Skunk Cabbage
Colt's Foot was the 2nd wildflower to bloom
Spring Beauty are beginning to carpet the forest floor in some places
Not a flower, but providing  color on the forest floor is Scarlet Elf-cup

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