Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 15, 2010

A Downy Reedpecker

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:54 am

You know, I can remember seeing my first real Lasioptera hungarica like it was yesterday. In fact, it was only yesterday that I found myself staring into the face (or in the general area of a face if it had one) of my first ever Hungarian Gall Midge. Yes, I know you are green with envy and perhaps even jealous with rage, but I can’t control your mis-placed emotions. I offer no apology because none is required.  I earned that privilege, dog-gone it. I earned it because of hard work, persistence and darn good luck and if you insist on going off on some hissy fit just because YOU weren’t there, well all I have to say is that it looks like SOMEBODY didn’t get enough candy hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Listen to me, if you combine the words “I” with “earned”, as in “I earned,” you get a word that looks like “learned.” True, this is just because a capitol “i” and a lower case “L” look kinda similar in this particular font, but SO what. Yes, I earned the right to learn and now I am going to share my learning with you. Ha, doesn’t SOMEBODY feel sheepish about now, eh!? After all you just said, you should be a-s-h-a-m-e-d of yourself. Well, for your information I DIDN’T get enough candy hearts either! They disappeared from my store shelves two days before Valentine’s Day while I was out earning some learning. How about them apples, eh?

Sorry, I need to lay down a minute while my wife goes out for some valentine hearts. I have a prescription.

O.K., now, where were we. Oh yes, the case of the minute Lasiopteran. Well, in spite of my earlier sugar deprived statement, I really didn’t find that little Hungarian all by myself. I was led to it by a Downy Woodpecker. These diminutive black & white birds are well-known for their wood chiseling skills. Hardly a winter walk passes where I don’t hear and/or see one of these guys diligently pecking away at some rotted branch in order to reach the juicy grubs hidden within. They ain’t called wood-peckers for nothing. But, it has come to my attention recently, like some candy heart thought balloon, that I have been seeing an inordinate number of downy woodpeckers working the reed beds lately. That heart balloon declared that “Woodpeckers is Reedpeckers 2” (It’s one of those really big heart candies with……….no, I am diverging again).

By reeds, I am referring to the Common Reed or Phragmites- those graceful but obnoxious plume-topped invaders that have all but choked out our Great lakes wetlands. These things grow in extremely dense beds and leave barely a foot of space between their tall jointed winter stems. Frankly, there is nothing good to say about them because of their severe impact on our wetland ecosystems. In short, they deserve valentine heart candy messages like “Die” or “Go Home.” Of course, nothing is that simple. Phragmites don’t understand English and they are not entirely alien to this continent, but that is a topic for another time. Downy Woodpeckers are the topic for this time. At least they are trying to earn some kind of living off of these pesty plants.

In a way, it is perfectly natural for Downy Woodpeckers to explore the inner resources of reed stems. They frequently probe into cat-tail stems and New York Ironweed stalks looking for stem-boring insects. They are experts at grabbing onto thin vertical perches as well. When pecking away at a reed, they grab on for dear life and deliver just enough blows to remove a sliver of the tough stem (see above and here). They pluck the prize out of the newly created window with a deft flip of the tongue and then move on. I became curious as to what these little prize packets actually were.

Getting access to random woodpecker holes within a bed of reeds is not easy. It took a few days before a fresh excavation came to me. Well, I actually approached the plant and not it me (it would be pretty weird to have a phragmites plant, with a hole in its head, walk up to me– sounds like a sugar induced dream dosesn’t it?).  In short, A downy few uppy and awayee from a reed stem close to the trail and left evidence of her work behind (see below). I split the hollow stem open and uncovered the prize in the form of a tiny yellowish larvae rolling around inside. This was the Hungarian Midge.

There are plenty of insects that feed exclusively on Phragmites. In Europe there are some 140 species that feed on this plant and at least 21 of them have successfully completed the overseas journey to our country. Many of these critters feed on the pithy interior of the hollow stems and a majority of these pith-eaters are yellowish non-descript worms.  Unfortunately, like conversation hearts without messages on them, they all look pretty much alike to the un-trained eye.

The telling thing about this non-descript grub was the black interior of the stem section in which it rolled about (see below & detail here). When the female Hungarian Midge lays her eggs in the green stem of a growing reed, she also introduces a type of fungus. This fungus forms a black mat of threads upon which the young larvae feed. The black fungus association is unique to the Hungarian Gall Midge. Up to 300 larvae can be found over-wintering inside one of these sooty chambers. In our case, there was only one lone and traumatized little larvae left –the rest of his winter mates were rolling about inside the belly of a reed-pecker.

Should we now shoot all Downy Woodpeckers because they are eating a potential biological control agent? No. These midges appear to do little if any real harm to their hosts. They leave no visible signs of damage on the stem either, which makes it all the more remarkable that the woodpeckers are able to locate them so efficiently.

So, what have we learned here? First of all, Downy Woodpeckers are apparently adding some exotic food to their menu. Secondly, alien plants can come with a host of  equally alien insects. Thirdly, never try to write a blog when thinking about other things, such as conversation hearts for instance, because it tends to skew the conversation a bit.


  1. I really enjoy your crazy posts. I’m just wondering, when was the first time you saw an IMAGINARY Lasioptera hungarica? That seems even more intriguing than the matter at hand. I also want to say I very much enjoy watching downies in my backyard. Thankfully there is no Phragmites nearby, just an awful lot of buckthorn. Thinking of which makes me need Dove chocolates. (As cute as I find the candy hearts, I think of them as gritted Peptobismol.)

    Comment by Monica the Garden Faerie — February 15, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  2. Well…who knew! That’s pretty interesting. Now I will have to look closer at any phragmites I might find and see if there are any Hungarian Horntails…uh…midges in our neck of the woods, too!

    Comment by Ellen — February 16, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

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