Red-Bellied Woodpecker: Common, Conspicuous, and Misnamed

I am this month completing 14 years of careful record keeping on the birds of Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, close to 1200 observation days. There are a number of species that are present every season, but there is only one species that I have seen in every one of the last 168 months: the Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Note: The bird pictures below were all taken by Margaret Weber. 

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers are recognized by their bright red caps and napes. They are often seen flying, in their undulating flight pattern, from tree to tree near the park road, but they are also found deep in the woods. They are also very comfortable in urban and suburban neighborhoods, especially where there are large trees. They are attracted to bird feeders for seeds and provide a bright and colorful presence during winter.

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Red-bellied Woodpeckers were not always so common in Michigan. When I was young, they were considered a southeastern U.S. bird. In the second half of the 20th century, they expanded their range northward and a little westward, a development that appears to be continuing.

The first of the two range maps here is a poor image taken from a bird book published in 1966; the second is from current on-line information at Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Note how the species has moved up almost the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan in 50 years. (It does not migrate seasonally.)

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What is most noticeable about the Red-bellied Woodpecker is the red on the head, not the red on the belly, which is rarely visible. It is easy for beginning or casual bird watchers to think the bird as “red-headed,” but the name “Red-headed Woodpecker” is assigned to another species, one with a whole head of red. The Red-headed Woodpecker visits EHP only occasionally, perhaps once a year.

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The basis of the label “red-bellied” is sometimes visible, as in the next picture.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

In the fall, Red-bellied Woodpeckers harvest acorns in Eliza Howell, which they store in crevices of trees for later eating. In the spring they drill deep holes in dead trees, for nesting (and sometimes, it seems, just for the fun of it!).

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Different bird species get my attention in Eliza Howell in different seasons of the year, but the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a constant highlight.

 

Nesting Birds: Female and Male Roles

Most of the songbirds that breed in Eliza Howell Park are nesting now and providing great opportunities to learn about bird behavior. Part of my observation is focused on the different role that female and male parents play in nest building, incubation of eggs, and feeding the young. It varies somewhat from species to species.

After returning from time in the park, I often check the published research to expand my knowledge and/or confirm my observations.

Note: All photos were taken by Margaret Weber. Thank you.

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Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows nest every year under the Fenkell bridge over the Rouge River and sometimes under park shelters in nests that are made of mud and lined with plant material. Female and male Barn Swallows not only look alike, they also share many aspects of breeding.

They both build the nest.

They both incubate the eggs.

They both tend the nestlings.

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male ruby throated protrait

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The first picture is of a female on the nest; the second of the male in a perching position that is often taken during nesting season. The two sexes do not have similar roles.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

The female alone tends the nestlings.

The male is around, often perching (on guard?) on different trees in nesting territory, but does not assist the female.

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Baltimore Oriole

Several Baltimore Oriole hanging nests are made every year in large trees  in Eliza Howell. Based on the time this year’s nests were built, I expect that eggs will hatch very soon and the feeding nestlings phase will begin. The picture is of a female feeding the young.

The female does most of the nest building. I have seen males occasionally bring material for the female to weave.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common (at least the most noticeable) woodpeckers in the park, boring new nesting holes in dead trees each year. The picture is of a male during the excavation process, which takes several days.

Both female and male bore the hole, but most of it is done by the male.

Both incubate the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

coming at you

Red-winged Blackbird

The male Red-winged Blackbird (pictured) is sometimes polygamous and watches over more than one nest in his territory. Many of us have had the experience of the male “yelling” at us and flying in low, often right above/at the head, to chase us away when we get close to a nest or to fledglings.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both female and male tend the nestlings.

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By contrast to migration time, when the focus is on identifying the different species as they appear, in nesting time my attention is much more on bird behavior. I find this even more interesting.

 

 

 

 

THE MARCH 10 (or 11)

No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited as March approaches, ready to welcome back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.

Over the years, I have come to anticipate the arrival in Eliza Howell Park of the same ten species each year in March. One or two of these ten might not show till the beginning April on a rare occasion, but the chances are excellent that I will see these ten in the park in March. It is easier to predict their migration patterns than to predict March weather!

These species have two characteristics in common.

  1. They spend the winters within the United States, only a relatively short distance south; they are not among the neotropical migrants that winter in Central or South America.
  2. Southeastern Michigan is part of their breeding territory; they are returning here for the summer, not just migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
  • Note: All the photos included here were taken by Margaret Weber.

The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches may still be somewhat winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably and, by the end of March, they are ready to welcome the females with bright patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.

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The Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird (neither is pictured here) also arrive in March unfailingly. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in Eliza Howell, being specialists in adding an egg to nests of other species.

The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers. I count finding its nest, “hidden out in the open” on the ground, as one of my most exciting nest-searching experiences.

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The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell and two miles or so downriver from Eliza Howell, in Rouge Park, there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in EH nest, though I do not know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.

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Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture (not pictured) every year in the middle of March. It is usually about then that I see the first vultures of the year in EH. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I know not where they nest.

Ten years ago the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. They are slowly becoming more regular summer residents of Eliza Howell Park. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I usually do not see them here until March.

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Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that is common here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and definitely breed in the park, evidenced by the presence every year of young ducklings on the river.

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I do not expect to see the Eastern Phoebe until the very last week of the March – and then I can pretty much count on seeing it, often by the river near the footbridge. It has nested under the footbridge more than once. The phoebe is the earliest species in the flycatcher family to arrive and is a definite sign of spring.

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While many woodpeckers remain through the winter (in Eliza Howell, the Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy), the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker that heads south for the winter. Its foraging behavior is a little different from many woodpeckers, spending much of time on the ground searching for insects. It usually returns to Eliza Howell near the end of March and will be drilling a nesting cavity in less than a month, usually in a dead tree.

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I sometimes think that I should include Song Sparrow (not pictured) among the March arrivals (# 11). Every other year or so, a Song Sparrow or two spend part of the winter in Eliza Howell. When they don’t, I can count on seeing them in March.  In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food for their young into thickets, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find.

Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, perhaps the most recognized of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in much greater numbers starting in March in the park, but every year I see a few throughout the winter.

The appearance of these March species may not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. For those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, however, these early birds provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!

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An earlier version of this essay was published in The Flyway, the newsletter of Detroit Audubon, in 2012.

INVITATION: April 21 Nature Walk

For many of us, February is a time to plan for spring. It is a time to order favorite garden seeds – and a time to get spring nature walks on the calendar.

I invite anyone interested to join me on Saturday, April 21, 2018, for a spring walk in Eliza Howell Park (starting at 9:00 a.m.).

April is the beginning of the spring season for wildflowers and EHP always has a variety of beauties. Two common ones are trout lily…

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and spring beauty.

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By the third week of April, woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are drilling nesting holes.

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The land snails of Eliza Howell (I am not sure of the precise species) show up in April.

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Redbuds and a variety of other flowering trees/shrubs are abloom.

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The first butterflies appear at this time of the year, one being the Eastern Comma.

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In recent years, some of us have observed a fascinating phenomenon in one spring pond in the park. American Toads have selected it as their breeding pond, congregating here for a couple days in April. Over the following days and weeks hundreds of tadpoles develop in the shallow pond.

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These are some aspects of the spring life that we will be observing (and maybe taking some pictures of) on April 21. Everyone is welcome. We will meet about half way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact me: leonard.weber9@gmail.com

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Note: All the above pictures are from Eliza Howell Park and were taken in April 2017 by the author, with the exception of the woodpecker. That photo, also from EHP in April 2017, was taken by Margaret Weber.

Beech Trees and Beechnuts — and Passenger Pigeons

While on a winter walk in the woods recently, I came upon a stand of American Beech trees. They are easily identified, even in the winter, by their smooth light gray bark. (When my brothers and I found beech trees in our wanderings as kids over 60 years ago, we saw the bark as an invitation to pull out a pocket knife and carve initials – as countless others have done.)

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Some of the beeches in the forest of Eliza Howell are large, among the taller trees in the park. They can grow as high as 80 feet.

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In the shade of a forest, beeches develop tall straight trunks with a crown of foliage on top.

There is one American beech tree I paid particular attention to in 2017 that is found among the scattered oak trees inside the road loop in the park. It has the same smooth bark, but, because it is in the sunny open rather shaded like those in the forest, the shape is very different. It is a spreading tree rather than a single straight trunk. It’s many branches are both vertical and horizontal and the huge crown reaches nearly to the ground.

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It is this spreading beech that I watched last year as it produced thousands of beechnuts.

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Beech trees are slow-growing trees. They may be 40 years old before they produce nuts and 60 years old before they produce them in large numbers. Beech trees are reported to have years of abundant nuts every 2 – 3 years; 2017 was a year of abundance for this tree.

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The small beechnuts are edible by humans and consumed by many mammals and birds.

The beechnut was a favored food of Passenger Pigeons. Though it has been extinct for 100 years, the Passenger Pigeon was still found in very large numbers in Michigan 150 years ago. American Beech trees can live as long as 300-400 years and, while I do not know how old the oldest ones in the park are, some of these trees may have been living here in the days when Passenger Pigeons were hunting beechnuts.

The beech is one of my favorite tree species in Eliza Howell Park for several reasons, one being this connection with a magnificent bird that I will never see.

A Winter Walk on the South River Path

Part of my regular winter walk in Eliza Howell Park is the path along the river, going to the right after crossing the footbridge (coming from the road loop side). This area of the park is wooded and a winter walk in a deciduous woods is hard to beat, especially when there is snow on the ground.

I think of this as the “south river path,” marked in the dotted red line on the map.

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There is a Pignut Hickory tree near the path, a tree which was very productive in 2017. Before the snows came, I couldn’t avoid stepping on the nuts on the path and I was a little surprised that squirrels had not carried them off to store for winter eating.

Now I think I know the reason they didn’t. The leaves fell to cover the leaves and they were effectively stored right there. The squirrels are now digging them out, leaving the pieces of the outer shell behind as they carry off the nut. 

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When the leaves are off the trees, one of the more intriguing and noticeable plants near the path is wild grape vine. These vines are long, often large in diameter, and appear to dangle from the high branches. They do not adhere to the trunk as many other vines do. There are many grape vines along the path and they suggest a number of questions: how big do they get, how old, how do they get so high in the tree without adhering to trunks? I plan to comment on them further at another time.

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I always make sure I follow the path at least until I come to a patch of euonymus, a vine that adheres to the trunks of trees. Euonymus is an evergreen, providing the only green in this area of the park at this time of the year. A major part of their attraction is that they retain their attractive fruit in the heart of winter.

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I always walk very slowly near the euonymus vines because this is an excellent place to look for birds. Even on cold winter days when many birds are sheltered and hard to spot, I usually can find a few here. This year, Northern Cardinals are the most common, but I also frequently see Dark-eyed Juncos Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

One of the winter birding surprises this year is a small flock of Mourning Doves often along the edge of the river here. They feed mainly on the ground and the side of the river bank is one of the few areas of uncovered ground available. Sometimes, an icy spot on the river serves as their foraging “ground.

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The day or two following a snowfall is a good time to pay attention to animal tracks, which can always be found. On this most recent walk on the south river path, I saw many tracks, including those of deer.

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The south river path does not reach a park entrance/exit. It simply ends a short distance past the euonymus. So I return the way I came, usually seeing something that I missed a little while ago. That is the nature of a nature walk — observational, not destinational.

The Woodpeckers of Eliza Howell Park

In January 2018, I am starting my 14th year of recorded bird walks in Eliza Howell Park, but it doesn’t take all these records to know that, with so many birds migrating to warmer climates for the winter, January and February are the months with the fewest number of species. Even in the heart of winter, however, and far from any bird feeders, there are some species that I regularly see.

Two of the small number of species that I see every January are woodpeckers – the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. When first seen, the Red-bellied Woodpecker looks like it should be called “red-headed” (more about this below), but sometimes, as in this picture, the so-called red belly is noticeable.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

Photo by Margaret Weber

The red-bellied is bright, loud, and large enough to be noticed easily, especially when there are no leaves on the trees. The smaller, quieter, less bright Downy Woodpecker is more likely to be lower and closer to the observer.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

There are, in total, 6 different kinds of woodpeckers that occur in the park almost every year. Three are found year-round: Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker (not pictured) is slightly larger than the Downy but otherwise looks almost exactly like it. It is less common at Eliza Howell, though it does breed here.

In the spring and again in the fall, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrates through the area, seen for a few days only. It too has a questionable name – the “yellow bellied” part, not the “sapsucker” part. The yellow is somewhat visible in adults, but is not the most obvious characteristic. This picture is of an immature, without the red on the head or throat and without noticeable yellow, but it shows clearly the line of holes that the sapsucker makes to collect sap. It revisits the holes to lap up the sap and to eat any insects that may get caught there.

immature yellow bellied

Photo by Margaret Weber

The most striking species of woodpecker to be seen in the park is also the most rare and the least predictable. The Red-headed Woodpecker is not very common in the Detroit area generally and shows up in Eliza Howell only about once a year, for a few days. In 2017, one was present in May (when this picture was taken) and one was also seen for several days in the summer.

(When someone asks why the “red-bellied” is not called the “red-headed,” I suggest that probably this bird has a priority claim to the name.)

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The 6th woodpecker species in the park is the Northern Flicker. The flicker is a summer resident, arriving in the spring and leaving in the fall and is the fourth woodpecker that nests here. It is different from most other woodpeckers in that it often feeds on the ground, consuming large numbers of ants.

flicker colors

Photo by Margaret Weber

Woodpeckers typically drill holes in dead trees for nesting. These holes have quite small openings, but are deep. In 2017, I watched, over a period of days, as Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers drilled holes in trees about 100 yards apart. I watched as a red-bellied tried to drive a flicker away from the tree where the flicker was drilling its hole. I later watched as, in an different part of the park, red-bellieds and flickers were both carrying feed to their young in nests about 15-20 feet apart in the same dead tree. Interesting interactions between the two species.

In this picture, a Red-bellied Woodpecker is “spitting” out chips from the nesting hole it is making.

red bellied yuck

Photo by Margaret Weber

I started these thoughts by looking forward to seeing woodpeckers in winter. I end by looking backward to 2017. It is common, I suppose, for a nature student to think in terms of annual cycles.