Zygodactyl Feet? Who Me?

And now for the woodpecker action I promised in an earlier post….

Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy Woodpecker stashing nut in old Pileated hole
Hairy woodpecker
The red on the back of the head tells us this is a male Hairy Woodpecker.

The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a Hairy Woodpecker stashing peanuts in some holes drilled in a sassafras tree by a Pileated Woodpecker a couple years ago.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!
Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) after she bumped the Hairy off her spot!

And as if that wasn’t cute enough, a moment later he was bumped off his spot by a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, who proceeded to stash her own peanut in the same hole (or maybe she was taking his out). It happened so fast that if I’d blinked I would have thought the Hairy had magically turned into a Red-bellied. I’ve seen the Red-bellies do that same move before — back in January as I was watching my first ever Fox Sparrow on the ground below our feeders, suddenly a Red-belly landed practically on top of him. I think they’ve got a bit of an aggressive streak, or else they just don’t watch where they’re going very carefully!

Zygodactyl toe blog sidebarAs fun as it was to see the interaction of the Hairy and Red-belly, I got to see a much rarer interaction a few days later at the same tree.

A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker
A hard-working female Pileated Woodpecker (a male would have a red moustache stripe rather than black)

As I walked out the driveway to get the mail one afternoon, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods across the road. Excited at the possibility that it would come over to our yard, I ran inside to get my binoculars and camera. When I came back the bird was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, I went back inside, but stationed myself at the kitchen windows so I could keep an eye out in case he/she came back.

I couldn’t believe my luck when she did come into the yard less than 20 minutes later! And even more interesting, she went right to those same sassafras trees (we have five of them side by side in that part of the yard). She began chipping away at the bark in several different spots at first, then settled on one spot and really got busy. But the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers apparently didn’t want her here, and they tried to chase her away. They were unsuccessful and gave up after a few minutes, leaving her to spend the next 45 minutes drilling a hole big enough to put her entire head inside the tree.

Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker -- look at the size difference!
Red-bellied woodpecker and Pileated woodpecker — look at the size difference!

But I got a great photo with both woodpecker species in the same frame, showing the big size difference. Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the largest birds in our yard, but this one looks so tiny next to the Pileated, doesn’t he?

I was thrilled to be able to watch her for so long, and after she finished drilling that large hole she flew across the road and was gone. I was hoping maybe she was going to make a nest hole, but I think this was just a hunt for ants inside the tree. Since these big birds have territories from 150-200 acres in size, our property is just a small portion of their home base. I guess that’s why we’ve only seen two of them in the past several years here.

Pileated Woodpecker holes from previous years (533x800)
Older holes
Pileated Woodpecker holes in sassafras tree (533x800)
New holes

I went out to check out the holes after she left. These two shots show the holes dug in previous years compared to the new ones; see how the exposed inner bark is brown on the new ones?  

And here’s a video of her as she worked, accompanied by some light classical music that was playing on my tv.  (It’s a good thing woodpeckers have reinforced skulls or they’d need a steady supply of aspirin, wouldn’t they?)

Cranes to my Left, Cranes to my Right

Sandhill Crane in flightWe’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.

Well, last Friday night, we got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close encounter with just two of them last summer.

We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.

The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.

Cranes in formation

I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time.

Just a small portion of the crowded marsh as the sun started to lower in the sky
Landing gear down….

Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.

Bald Eagle (click to enlarge)
Pileated Woodpecker! (click to enlarge)

And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!