June 23, 2014
I have often referred to my Dollar Lake property as the “Kingdom of the Woodpeckers” because of the incredible variety and number of these birds which frequent the place. I’d call it Peckerwood if the dictums of society allowed. Over the course of an average spring/summer weekend seven different species have been known to visit the yard. With the exception of the northern ranging Black-backed Woody, this represents the full complement of woodpeckers to be found in the state.
While I’ll admit that this is not a fact worthy of spraying a freshly gulped cup of coffee upon its revelation, I do think it worthy of minor mention in a minor blog such as this. Having established that I have been in the position of being a woodpecker connoisseur as of late, I will go on to say that there are layers of hammerhead appreciation. Yes, it is stupid to rank things but I have been known for saying stupid things and I must maintain my reputation.
My woodpecker ranking has nothing to do with inherent worthiness –it is, like wine, beer, and movie rankings, extremely subjective. Such lists often result in folks calling each other peckerwood due their obvious Neanderthal abilities in distinguishing the “crème de la crème” from the crap. I humbly believe you’ll agree on my top choices regardless of your relatively density.
The familiar and delightful little Downy Woodpecker is at the bottom of the list only because it is familiar, little, and not uppy. Flickers (see top photo above) come in second because they are familiar and because they are flickers. Red-bellied Woodpeckers (see middle photo above) are next on the list followed closely by, and often interchanging positions with, Hairy Woodpeckers. Neither is well-named but that is not their fault. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (see bottom photo above), in position 5, are a personal favorite because of their name alone. For sheer wow-ness, Red-headed Woodpeckers are second from the top as the best-named of all birds. None, however, can exceed the magnificent Pileated Woodpecker for overall wow-ness.
For considering the top two woodpeckers on my list, this season has been a good one.
Either Red-heads are abundant or one individual bird is abundantly energetic because they (he) are (is) always around. Red-headed Woodpeckers are painted with broad strokes – their head is solidly red, their body white, and their wings starkly black and white. There is no barring or fancy pin-striping on this bird. When stationary upon the side of a tree they look rather fake.
Red-heads are noticeable for their coloration alone, but their behavior also gives them away. They tend to veer from the normal woodpecker habit of tree banging for insects in that they also engage in aerial pursuits for their prey – acting much like a flycatcher. One bird flew back and forth low over the dock apparently trying to scare up a dragonfly or two. If these birds are ever embarrassed by such non-conformist behavior it never shows (because they already have red cheeks and…never mind).
Pileated Woodpeckers are in a league of their own primarily due to their size and ghostly tendencies. It’d seem that the two don’t go together, but one never knows when one of these giants will swoop into, or out of, view. It is easy enough to tell when Pileated Woodpeckers are in the neighborhood because of their distinctive tree-work. Excavating large square-edged pits, they can turn a tree into a good imitation of a towering skyscraper complete with multiple windows. They are not intimidated by the hard outer wood of a healthy tree in their pursuit of Carpenter Ants and wood-boring grubs deep within.
In my experience these birds will suddenly appear from nowhere. Occasionally they announce their presence with a horsey laugh (sounding very much like a Flicker call played on slow speed in front of a loud speaker) or you’ll hear some resonate hammering (sounding very much like a carpenter whacking away on sill beam), but for the most part they just drift in and do their stuff. Much of their time is spent on fallen trees and stumps.
Crow-sized, Pileated are about 15 inches in length and marked with the usual black and white attire of all woodpeckers. Males and females look alike except that the males have a red mustache and the females a black one (no comment on females with mustaches, now). The first photo in this series is that of a female while the rest are males. The species name refers to the prominent red crest found on both sexes – from the Latin pileatus or “wearing a felt cap.” You might be relieved (or is it re-leave-e-ated)? to know that this name can be correctly pronounced as either “pill-le-ated” or “pie-le-ated.” French-Canadians simply call them “Grand Pic” and avoid the pronunciation trouble altogether.
One of these magnificent woodpeckers came down to investigate our rotting stumps last week. He hopped from stump to stump before settling into spend a few minutes on one good ant-producing prospect. Once spotted, he paused, threw off a penetrating stare, and drifted into the woods. His unhurried manner of leaving suggested that she left of her own accord and not because of my presence. Yes indeed, this bird is top of the pecking order.
June 16, 2014
Piping Plovers are one of Michigan’s most endangered birds. They are so rare in the Great Lakes region, in fact, that most of them bear personal names. This is not necessarily a good thing, by the way (you’ll recall that the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth was called Martha and that Sue is a long-extinct -Rex!). Usually by the time people get involved with the fate of a species they are inclined to pin personal names on their subjects and mark them with colorful bands and tags. Therefore, like rock stars, these unfortunate critters are endowed with single names and lots of bling.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, one of the Piping Plovers I encountered at Tawas Point State Park earlier this week was probably named L’oreal. Although, because she wasn’t paired with Lancelot, I could be wrong. You see, it depends on your definition of yellow – I’ll explain this in a minute. The only thing that really matters is that this bird, and her mate, are Piping Plovers and that they are freely running around on the Lake Huron Dunes.
Pipers are closely related to Killdeers. Like their larger cousins they have a ringed neck, dark forehead stripe, and only three toes. Unlike them, they are sparrow-sized, pale, and exceedingly rare. Against their chosen sandy background these diminutive plovers are nearly invisible. The two birds I encountered opted for high visibility in their effort to lure me away. Their earnest “peep-lo” calls punctuated the morning air and they skittered around the beach grass to catch my attention.
Their efforts were not necessary in this case because their territory was clearly roped off and designated as Piping Plover habitat. I was outside the perimeter and the threat of federal law was enough to keep me there. Both birds settled down after a short while and one of them, the one I’m calling L’Oreal, snuck back onto her nest. A predator proof wire frame, with spacing just large enough to allow her passage, surrounded the site. Her nest, if you could call it that, was a mere scrape in the sand and is the reason this caged bird sings.
Looking over my photos after the fact I was able to see the multiple leg bands on each individual. John Audubon could hardly have imagined what his simple thread-tied Phoebes hath wrought. Not only are these birds marked with a standard aluminum identification band, but are also marked with brightly colored location and brood bands. If they had external ears I’m sure these would be tagged as well. This system, along with the wire cage/perimeter system is consistent with Piping Plover programs across the country. In monitored populations, like that at Tawas, the chicks are banded soon after hatching.
One bird had a high orange tag along with a black & green band on her left leg (see beginning photo and No. 3). The right leg had a high metal band with a pale ankle bracelet. The other bird (see above) had the high orange tag on its right leg along with a black and green band below the bend. The left leg was doubly banded with aluminum and green banding. The first bird matches the band sequence of L’Oreal. The pale ankle band, unfortunately, was a problematical faded yellow so I’ll have to add a caveat to my “expert” opinion. It could be dirty white.
Let’s just suppose that I am right. This is not always a good thing to do, but let’s use this as an example of one piper’s life even if it is not the pictured fowl. L’Oreal – so called because “she’s worth it” (hats off to the team member that came up with that one!) – has been around for at least three years. For the past two she has nested at Tawas Point with Lancelot and successfully raised multiple chicks each year. She’s even been recorded overwintering in Georgia. That the other Piping Lover of the pair is definitely not Lancelot (who is a “right orange, green, orange and a left metal, yellow”) brings up some interesting possibilities which only his hairdresser knows for sure. Actually the state Piping Plover co-coordinator probably knows.
There are three main Piping Plover breeding locations in North America. The main population is found along the beaches of the Northeast and it appears to be the healthiest. Another group sets up shop in the northern Great Plains.
The Great Lakes population is the smallest by far. From a low of only 17 Michigan pairs in the late 1970’s, this number has slowly climbed over the years and today there are at least three times that number of known breeders. There were 45 chicks produced in 2012 and high hopes for more this season. Eight chicks were fledged at Tawas last year alone. Most of this success can be chalked up to the gallant efforts of conservationists and volunteers watching over them – you know those people who put names and tags on these birds.
Historically Piping Plovers were never common on Michigan’s beaches, or along any of the Great Lakes for that matter. Biologists estimate that only 600-800 pairs nested here in their heyday. Shoreline development certainly is to blame for the bird’s accelerated plunge over the brink within the last 100 years, but there was something else going on long before our arrival on the scene. Nature has a way of putting animals in their place and often we are not privy to that information. That probably means that even with a wildly successful preservation program Piping Plovers will always be rare. At least it is safe to say that they will always be special and all of them are worth the effort.
June 8, 2014
Apart from the increasing clumps of white birch and abandoned snowmobiles, dead roadside porcupines are a sure way to mark one’s passage into Northern Michigan. It is near impossible to travel over the “quill line” without spotting at least one or two lifeless bristle mounds on the way to your final destination. It would be easy to assume that these large rodents are born dead on the side of the road if you are not a resident.
Even though I have spent considerable time in porky country and the critters are extremely common, I’d never seen a live porcupine. The fact that they are primarily nocturnal certainly influenced the situation as well. The animals were burned into my young mind, however, thanks to the tales of a favorite uncle. The Boyer side of the family lived on Sugar Island, located on the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie – literally spitting distance from the far-away land of Canada-da-da-da.
My Uncle Dan went through several dogs over the years and not a one lived a full life that I recall. Whenever one came back quill-ridden, due to a disastrous encounter with a porcupine, it was “taken for a walk.” Uncle, the dog, and a rifle entered the deep woods behind the shed and only uncle and the shotgun returned. So, in a way I learned that porcupines kill dogs with a rifle. I was never there when these things events happened but heard about them several times over each summer’s visit.
Secretly I wondered if I would be taken on a similar walk if I ever got quilled. I dreaded a porcupine encounter and for over half a century never had to deal with it. By the way, I’ve since found out that most quills can be extracted safely without the use of lead, but that is irrelevant at this point.
A long-feared event finally took place at our Dollar Lake cabin a few weeks ago. A Porky ambled into the yard and I ambled out to encounter it. My uncle having passed away many years ago (and in heaven, no doubt, after a brief time in purgatory), I felt safe. It was a completely serendipitous occasion, but fortunately I was ready.
The animal, a small one by quill pig standards (they can get up to 30 pounds), was intent on crossing the yard along the lakeside. It was caught off guard by my appearance and indignantly rose up on his hind legs to look at me with a “really?” look. After casting a longing glance over to where he wanted to go, he turned back to look where he’d just come from and apparently made a decision to retreat. Acting in slow motion, he dropped back on all fours, turned his rump in my direction and bloomed. Yes, he bloomed.
The transformation of a porcupine at rest to one in defensive mode is a remarkable thing. By tightening the skin on his hind quarters it raised a ring of extremely long hairs to expose a formidable patch of quills hidden beneath. White quills, contrasting with the coal black underfur surrounding them, lined both sides of the tail and created a menacing rump crescent. The porky waited for my next move – knowing full well that if I chose to molest him I would pay a price. His whole demeanor was that of bored confidence (“if we both just go our own way things will be o.k., so how about it?”).
According to the literature, the average porcupine has over 10,000 quills. The longest, at about 4 inches, are located on the rump and the shortest are on the sides of the head. There are no quills on the belly at all and this has long been the attack point for predators such as Fishers.
Each quill is a hollow modified hair. The tips are equipped with multiple backward-facing barbs. As my uncle could have told you, once these barbs gain access to dog flesh they will work their way in until…well, lead poisoning results! Like I said before, they can be removed if “deflated” (cut) and firmly pulled. The porky doesn’t throw these quills at their attacker. They are loosely attached to the skin via a narrow base and they detach as soon as the tips come in contact with the enemy.
Native tribes made heavy use of porcupine quills for decorative purposes. Before the advent of European glass beads, these plastic-like hairs were dyed and sewn into fabric or birch bark to create stunning designs. Gathering quills was relatively simple because porkies are slow and easily clubbed (quills are no defense against large sticks).
After holding his threat pose for a minute, my porky turned back and beat a retreat through the cedars from whence he came. It was not a hasty retreat by any means; in fact I believe an opossum might have a speed edge over a running porky. I will admit that it must be hard to keep your butt skin tight while running and I probably should cut this porky some slack. We’d have to pitch an un-armed porcupine against an opossum sometime to see who would win such a foot race. If that race was across a road, I’d wager both would be creamed before reaching the other side, unfortunately.
The porcupine sought safety in a maple tree which he scaled with bear-like ability until reaching a high crotch. Finally letting his quills down, he settled down to wait out the threat. Even though I wasn’t present for most of the time, he remained there for over four hours before descending. As a final wager, I’d bet that this porky did not enjoy his encounter nearly as much as I did. In fact I’ll bet he dreads it.
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