Sigrid Sanders
The Beaver Pond
Page 2 of 3

Red-headed woodpeckers are considered the best flycatchers of all the woodpecker family. Their diet also includes a wide variety of other foods, including other insects, seeds and nuts, fruits, and the eggs and nestlings of other birds. They are one of only four woodpecker species that commonly store food - especially nuts, acorns and large insects like grasshoppers.

In April, I had watched the pair from across the pond for several minutes as they flew from place to place around the hole in the tall, pale tree, which was completely stripped clean of bark and swirled with soft grayish patterns. The leafy branches of a nearby oak partially screened the snag from my view, but I could still see the hole clearly. It was about halfway up on the side of the tree facing the pond, about 30 feet up from the ground. One of the woodpeckers began to stick its head and most of its body into the hole, leaving only the fat white V on the back of its wings and the tail bobbing out. It did this several times, and then I began to see chips of wood being tossed out behind it. I counted. At least 25 times the woodpecker went into the hole, and while it was inside, wood chips flew out. Each time, it came out briefly, then went back in again. It was still working when a hard rain made it impossible for me to see, and I left for the day.

Since then, I'd caught glimpses of the pair around the nest hole several times, but we had been traveling and working, and I hadn't had time to keep up with their progress. Red-headed woodpeckers may use the same nest hole for several years, but since I was not able to watch them regularly, I don't know if this was a new nest hole or an old one they were cleaning out and sprucing up, or even a hole made and first used by another species of woodpecker that they were moving into. Excavating a hole for the first time can take several days. The male does most of the excavation, then both male and female construct the nest, and apparently they can be particular. A.C. Bent, in Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers, quotes an 1895 account from a Major Bendire:

"Some of its nesting sites are exceedingly neat pieces of work; the edges of the entrance hole are beautifully beveled off, and the inside is as smooth as if finished with a fine rasp . . . the eggs are deposited on a layer of fine chips."[1]

The beaver pond was popular with all of our resident woodpeckers, including pileated, hairy, downy, red-bellied, and Northern flickers. The Red-headed woodpeckers here were unique, however, in that we saw them only in and around the wetland area. Unlike the others, they were not commonly found in the surrounding forest away from the ponds. Their call is a clear quaarrrr, similar to a Red-bellied woodpecker's call but higher and airier in quality, and they have several other vocalizations, including a burbling kind of chatter. In all of their calls there's an open, sunlit and sociable quality that's unlike the voices of the more deep-woods loving woodpeckers like the pileated, downy and hairy. Maybe their big, splashy blotches of colors also reflect this preference for sunnier surroundings.

I remember when I used to see Red-headed woodpeckers even in shaded urban and suburban neighborhoods with grassy lawns. But that was many years ago. Now they are hard to find. In this area, they're most likely to be found around beaver ponds or in forested areas along river corridors, with adjacent open, grassy land. Both Birds of North America[2] and the National Audubon Society's WatchList[3] identify habitat protection as the most important way of protecting the future of Red-headed woodpeckers. Their habitat "should be managed so as to provide large forest fragments . . . with large snags for nesting and open areas for catching flying insects," says the WatchList. Additional information about the life and habits of these woodpeckers also would be helpful. "It is surprising how much basic information about this relatively common and easily identified species remains unknown, compared to other species of woodpeckers in North America," note the authors of the BNA account.

On the hot June afternoon when I sat at the pond, hoping to see some sign of them again, the tall pale tree with their nest hole stood quiet. No sign of the woodpeckers, no movement around the tree. The air shimmered with heat in between. The memory of their colorful shapes, high, chattering calls, like the laughter of children in the distance, and white wings fluttering against the hazy blue background of forest made them seem almost like ghosts.

I turned my attention back to the green heron and watched its progress for several minutes as it made its way in slow motion across snags and logs, pausing often to stand motionless, melting into the background, then - snap! Another dragonfly. With food so abundant and easy to catch, it looked almost smug, though it didn't always succeed. Frequently it missed, and a dragonfly zoomed off, escaped. But there were plenty more. I heard the emphatic peenk! of a hairy woodpecker, the whreep of a great crested flycatcher, the staccato chik-perchikoree-chik of a white-eyed vireo.

The two kingfishers still sat on either end of the thin fallen log, each of them looking around, but not flying, not preening. Then I heard the rattle of a third kingfisher overhead, and the two I was watching both looked up. One of them gave an answering call and flew up to meet the newcomer, and they both flew out of sight. The other kingfisher stayed put on the tree near the surface of the quiet brown water.

Some frogs began to call in hoarse, thrumming voices - green frogs, I think, whose calls are often described as sounding like the plucking of a loose banjo string. One call started another, and another, and these were answered by similar calls from across the pond. While we lived in this place, the frogs and toads of the wetland, the pond and the woods were an almost constant presence, different ones at different times of the year, though we rarely saw them - except for the green tree frogs that liked to cling to the window panes, jewel-like little creatures of clear emerald green, with a shimmering gold or cream streak down each side. Mostly we knew them only by ear. In the winter and early spring, the upland chorus frogs sang, in voices that sounded like a finger raking over a comb, along with the long, sustained trills of American toads, the rolling snorts of pickerel frogs, the curious creaky calls of southern leopard frogs, and the familiar high-pitched chorus of spring peepers. In spring and summer the full chorus from the beaver pond and woods filled the nights with an amazingly loud cacophony of calls that rose to a roar, at times almost enough to hurt the ears. It was almost impossible to separate the voices in these summer night orgies, which also included the chattering songs of hoards of katydids and other insects, but as well as I could tell, over time, there were green frogs, green tree frogs, gray tree frogs, bird-voiced tree frogs, northern cricket frogs, Fowler's toads and maybe others. I'm sure the bullfrogs sang at night too, but I think of them more as the deep, watery bellow of lazy summer afternoons.

[1] A.C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers, originally published by the United States National Museum in 1939, republished by Indiana University Press, 1992, page 159.

[2]Kimberly G. Smith, James H. Withgott and Paul G. Rodewald. 2000. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

[3]2007 National Audubon Society WatchList, National Audubon Society WatchList,

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