Sunday, February 21, 2010

American Three-toed Woodpeckers

American Three-toed Woodpeckers are year-round residents of Pukaskwa but they aren't always easy to detect as they go about their business in the shadowy tangles of twigs and lichens. In April, the birds will become noisier as they reassert their breeding territories and vie for mates by drumming and vocalizing. Outside of the breeding season, they can be heard, sometimes from a considerable distance, relentlessly chipping away at spruce and balsam fir bark in search of beetle larvae.

The weather conditions this morning - cool, bright and windless - were ideal for locating and observing Three-toeds at Pukaskwa. Only a few minutes after arriving I heard the erratic tap...tap-tap-tap-tap....tap... of a bird foraging about 10 metres off the trail. Well before I actually saw the bird, I saw the characteristic reddish trunk from which the woodpecker had removed much of the outer bark, probably over the course of weeks and months. Strewn around the base, on top of last week's snow, were flakes of bark.

I stopped a few metres from the tree and spied the woodpecker, tapping away, in the shadows some four metres up the trunk. I watched it for a few minutes and moved on. Not long after, I heard a second. I followed the sound and soon enjoyed an uncommonly good eye-level view of a male (note the yellow crown) extracting insects from the rotting trunk of a white spruce.

This short video clip gives a sense of the sound that tips off the presence of this species, even in the heart of winter.

Here's a more thoroughly de-barked spruce from the same area.

Close-up showing the gallery of a bark beetle (Scolytinae?) that the foraging woodpecker has accessed by flaking off the outer bark. Also visible are deeper holes bored to access larvae of other wood boring beetles.

The following image, courtesy of Jim McClarin, shows a span of bark carefully exposed to reveal several bark beetle pupae and their associated galleries.

  • more Bark and Ambrosia Beetle images from Bug Guide.
  • Wiggins, D. 2004. American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis): a technical conservation assessment. [Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available (pdf) here: [accessed March 1, 2010].

Monday, February 15, 2010

Voyageur Hiking Trail at Marathon

The Voyaguer Hiking Trail runs, somewhat intermittently, from Thunder Bay, east to Manitoulin Island. There is a short (2.1 km) section which crosses the coast from the Town of Marathon, north to Sturdee Cove.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

During the December 20th Marathon CBC, Martha and I drove a loop around the inside perimeter of the landfill site under the watchful eye of the town employee with whom we'd prearranged access to the facility. We had hoped to catch a few hundred gulls napping but our timing was off (we later learned they were on the wing closer to the big lake). Instead we counted ravens, lots of ravens.

As we approached the gate to leave the site, three Snow Buntings and one darker bird flew past. We tallied the SNBU's but had to leave the fourth bird unidentified. We figured it was either a Horned Lark or a Lapland Longspur - common associates of Snow Buntings. Indeed, during the 2008 CBC, we found one of each species only a few metres from this spot.

Today as I passed the landfill site on Penn Lake Rd, I again watched three Snow Buntings and a darker associate fly alongside the road. Fortunately, the flock landed and began feeding on the seed heads of grasses in a low-lying spot. I pulled over and approached on foot. The fourth bird was very dark indeed. I was able to get close enough to see clearly that this was neither a Lapland Longspur nor a Horned Lark...

And so I'm left wondering if this was the same dark little bird we didn't ID during the CBC, a month and a half ago.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches do occasionally stray from the Rockies into Ontario, although infrequently enough that the species is on the rare birds review list for northern Ontario.

Those interested in seeing this bird should know that the landfill site is out-of-bounds to the public - unconsolidated fill presents a serious risk to trespassers. Fortunately the southwest-facing slope can be scanned from the shoulder of Penn Lake Road. I recommend bringing a spotting scope. The vacant lot on the south side of Penn Lake Rd, across from the dump, holds decent looking field habitat that can be more thoroughly searched on foot. Those contemplating a trip from out-of-town should bear in mind that this particular Rosy-Finch is not visiting a feeder and thus its whereabouts are unpredictable.

Range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Update - March 8, 2010

After checking the open areas on both sides of Penn Lake Rd. on most days since the bird was first sighted on Feb 12, I relocated the three Snow Buntings and the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch this evening at around 5:30 pm in the weedy vacant lot across the road from the landfill site. The spot (48.72429, -86.37399) is about 150 metres west of where the birds were seen on Feb 12. As before, the birds were actively feeding on the seed heads of grasses and evening primrose.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Brown Thrasher still showing in SSM

Ken McIlwrick photo

The Brown Thrasher that I first reported back on Dec 6th, 2009, and counted during the CBC is still alive and well. It continues to come to a feeder in town (86 Essex Lane in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario ) where it consumes meal-worms, suet, seeds, nuts and oatmeal. It has been feeding at this backyard location since the middle of Nov 2009.

It is pretty skittish to the presence of humans, but is now becoming a dominant bird at the feeder (it used to get scared off by Mourning Doves). The best way to observe the bird is actually from inside the house where it appears unaware that it is being watched. Unfortunately photos taken from inside the house are not exactly high quality. It still feeds first in the morning (7:30-8:30am) but now makes brief noon hour appearances on sunny days at its favourite garden Trellis/Bench combo. At night it takes refuge in the Cedar hedges that surrounds this residence.

Here is a recent photo (7:41 am this morning - Feb 10). The photo attached is washed out and not all that sharp or saturated. It was taken in partial darkness through a dirty double pane kitchen window, on an angle while it was snowing.

Ken McIlwrick

Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Monday, February 8, 2010

Pine Grosbeak at ski club

One of three Pine Grosbeaks visiting a feeder along the Green Trail at the Marathon Cross Country Ski Club. The feeder was also being visited by Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

White-winged Crossbills

I encountered several flocks of White-winged Crossbills, totaling about 30 birds, in the Prairie River Mouth provincial reserve, east of Terrace Bay. All were feeding on Tamarack Cones despite an abundance of White Spruce cones in the area.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Backyard feeder update

The only new bird I've seen lately was a lone Pine Grosbeak, the first in our yard this winter, this morning. We've encountered them out in the bush on most of our outings.

Other regulars include singles of Downy Woodpecker, Common Raven, Northern Cardinal, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos. A half a dozen Black-capped Chickadees are the most frequent visitors and a Pileated Woodpecker flies over the house most mornings.