Staccato Summer

Red-bellied WP

Red-bellied WP, Melanerpes carolinus


I was under the mistaken impression that everyone loved woodpeckers with their striking black, white and red plumage, and distinctive behavior.  My sister-in-law has taught me otherwise.  She has a Red-bellied that keeps her awake at night by its drumming and drilling on the side of her cedar shake home.  Countless holes through the siding and sheathing and even into the insulation have caused mounting repair bills.  She now hangs gaudy Christmas tinsel year-round on the corner of the house to scare them off, all to no avail.  I’m afraid that more lethal interventions are now being considered.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

Downy WP, Picoides pubescent  (click on any photo to zoom)

Despite this I remain a strong admirer of the Picidae family of birds.  There are 25 species of woodpeckers in North America and 220 worldwide.  They vary widely in size but all have relatively short legs, long toes, and strong tails to support them upright against the tree trunk.  Their flight is rather slow and undulating.  The Flickers and Sapsuckers are migratory, depending on insects year-round, but the remainder are sedentary with a more diverse diet.  Woodpecker vocalizations are rather primitive, but loud and distinctive, often described as a descending rattle.

Red-headed WP

Red-headed WP, Melanerpes erythrocephalus

But where they really excel is with their staccato drumming ability–sorry sister-in-law.  I used to think that this was just the sound made by the bird’s search for food in the bark.  In reality it is a much more sophisticated communication tool used also for staking out breeding territory, attracting a mate (and maintaining the bond), and general communication–“I’m on my way home with more bugs.”

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius

The cadences are somewhat species specific.  Flickers and Sapsuckers have random, discontinuous patterns sounding like Morse Code.  The large Pileated has a loud, deep sonorous drumbeat that slowly diminishes in amplitude as it increases in frequency.  The Red-bellied drums at 19 beats per second, the Downy at 17 bps, while the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker starts with a short roll, pauses, and ends with two brief rolls of 2-3 beats each.  I guess I’ll have to consider adding a stopwatch to my birding paraphernalia.

Pileated WP

Pileated WP, Dryocopus pileatus

The force that a woodpecker generates by banging his head against a tree trunk is many times the maximum force that a human head and brain can survive.  There are a number of adaptations that make this possible.  The bird’s skull is thick and highly trabeculated, the neck muscles are strong, and the beak itself is slightly flexible, all helping to dissipate the force of the blow.  They also have a third inner eyelid to keep the eyeball from popping out at impact.

Nutgall's WP

Nuttall’s WP, Picoides nuttallii

The Hairy has the most bizarre adaptation.  This bird has a very long and sticky tongue to reach deep into the tree.  The tongue is retractable via an elaborate system of pulleys and muscles into a long tunnel which extends from the throat, encircling the base, back, and top of the skull, finally ending in the front at the base of the upper mandible.

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn't harm the tree

The neat Sapsucker rows; apparently it doesn’t harm the tree

The Sapsuckers peck hundreds of perfectly parallel holes, encircling the tree and creating “sap wells”.  The birds feed on the sap but also on the myriad insects it attracts.  The endangered Red-cockaded also thrives on the sap of the large live pines of the South.  In fact I found this uncommon bird in Florida by first locating the large hardened resin patches on its preferred trees and then waiting patiently for the bird to show up.

Acorn WP

Acorn WP, Melanerpes formicivorus

The Acorn is a communal clown-like bird appropriately found on our “Left Coast”.  It forms small breeding flocks of several males and females along with some non-breeding young adults, all sharing in the incubation and feeding duties.  The bird is famous for the precisely drilled holes, each packed with a single acorn hoarded for future consumption.  These “granary trees” have been known to hold up to 50,000 acorns and are jealously defended by the commune.


Ivory-billed WP, Campephilus principalis               by John James Audubon

I suspect all birders are familiar with the Ivory Woodpecker story. The last sightings of this large, glorious bird were in the bottomland forests of Louisiana and Arkansas in 2005.  But you’ll notice that all the extinct designations are qualified by “presumed”, “probably”, and “likely”.  Whenever I’m birding in the forests of the deep South and a Pileated flies by, I always take an extra glimpse of the bill color.  You just never know.

Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, published by HarperCollins Publishers, copyright 1974, 290 pages.

In the spirit and words of Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard went to her Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  This remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning book by a 28 year old will impress and inspire.  Like Thoreau, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord”, Tinker Creek is her local unassuming haunt in the suburbs of Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard is the pilgrim to this sacred place, a small creek with island, winding its way through pasture and wood, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

It is a book of her fascinating natural observations, but then buckle your seat belt and hold on tight as she takes you soaring into the meaning, or lack thereof, of it all. It’s a pilgrimage of the mind dipping into cosmology, theology, epistemology, and even quantum mechanics before bringing you back home, somewhat exhausted.  She intends to “tell some tales and describe some sights of this rather tame valley, and explore, in fear and trembling some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

European Starling

European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

This is obviously not a birding book although she does relate some interesting bird encounters.  There was the “Wood Duck flying like a bright torpedo that blasted the leaves where it flew.”  Or the Mockingbird with the white-striped tail fan diving straight down, seemingly just for the joy of it.  Or the flock of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds hidden in the Osage orange.  Or the annoying flock of thousands of European Starlings in the valley.  At wits end a hunter went out with shotgun and fired into the flock, killing three.  Asked if that had discouraged the birds he replied after some reflexion, “those three it did.”


A quiet contemplative day of birding?                           Photo by A. Sternick

Birders, like Dillard relish being out there day after day to see what develops, observing closely and carefully, and returning with some pearl or new insight.  As she says, “beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

Wood Duck

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa; female and juveniles; I still waiting for a good close shot of the colorful male

Insects seem to be her special interest and several tales lead you into that strange world.  There’s the small frog on the bank that slowly involuted into a pile of skin right before her eyes.  It was being sucked dry by the hidden Giant Water Bug that had injected its dissolving enzymes and was now enjoying the nourishing broth while leaving the skin behind.  Then there’s the female Praying Mantis slowly devouring her sexual partner during coitus until all that’s left is his sexual organ, still fulfilling its purpose.  She has a special place in her heart for spiders.  “Any predator that hopes to make a living on whatever small creatures might blunder into a four inch square space in the corner of my bathroom…needs every bit of my support.”


Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

I appreciated the section about quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says that the process of observation itself alters what is being observed.  This led to a college term paper for me years ago.  I won’t attempt to review the theology of this text, New or Old Testament, Koran, and others.  Nor will I tell you what the author concludes about the universe; is it brutally cruel or kind, chaotic or orderly; actually I’m not sure what she thinks.  I’ll have to read it again.  Some may find Tinker Creek too obtuse.  I suggest just plowing through those passages and come back to them later for a fresh look with a clearer head.  There’s much here to ponder.  “Knock; seek; ask.  But you must read the fine print.”

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

Some critics, including the author herself in recent years have complained about excessive verbosity in some passages–her style has later become more succinct.  You can also take the “deeper meaning” approach to the extreme, but remember when this was written.  We were all reading Hermann Hess and listening to Jimi Hendrix back then so I’ll forgive the influences of the time.  I still wonder how I overlooked this 1974 book for so many years, recipient of prizes and much acclaim.  Better late than never.

Where Have All the Swallows Gone?

Tree Swallow

Barn and Tree Swallows

Gliding, diving, graceful birds

Acrobats in flight.

On a boring day in May, June, or July you can always sit on the porch with a cool drink and watch the swallows.  This year the Tree Swallows won the annual competition for the birdhouse down by the creek, the one with the water view, and the Bluebirds were again relegated to the other two houses along the driveway.  I don’t pick favorites as both have great appeal.  The birdhouse by the water does have some issues as the smart Fish Crows from the neighbor’s trees are always poking their large bills through the hole, trying to snag a hatchling for lunch.  The parents do a brave job driving off the much larger crows, but I fear they are not always successful.  That doesn’t seem to stop the swallows from coming back here year after year.


Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustic,                   click on any photo to zoom

The entertainment is their airshow.  Swooping, sharp corners, straight up, diving low over the grass and river, catching insects, eating and drinking, even in flight.  In my book only the terns can rival the swallows in aerial acrobatics.  The Tree Swallows arrive first in the spring to stake out a nesting cavity, and stay later in the fall since they are the only swallow that can also feed on berries when the bugs are no longer plentiful.  The later arriving Barn Swallows almost exclusively build their mud nests on man-made structures–in my yard that’s the underside of the boat dock.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird at the “loser’s” house

The “Barnies” are the only North American swallow that has that deeply forked swallow tail.  It, plus the chestnut colored throat make the ID easy.  The Tree Swallows are striking birds with pure white below and metallic blue or green above, depending on the light.  These are the most common swallows in the East, but keep an eye out for the Bank S. with its dark chest band, the less sociable and more bland Northern Rough-winged S., and an occasional Cliff S. with its buff rump and forehead.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow flock

Then one evening in late July you notice they’re gone.  No fanfare or goodbyes, just gone, show’s over.  The birdhouse and dock are vacated.  And why did they leave so early?  There are still plenty of bugs, warm weather and sunshine, and maybe even enough time to raise another brood.  But I’ve learned that they are not gone.  The swallows haven’t really left for the season yet, but have changed their venue.  Just travel a few miles east to the inland fields with power lines or the vast tidal marshes along Delaware Bay and you’ll find them again.  You’ll see flocks, sometimes huge mixed flocks of swallows, no longer interested in breeding but now more intent upon consuming large volumes of insects and storing up energy for the coming fall.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

The fall migration is a much bigger deal than its spring counterpart.  A successful breeding season will swell the flock many times over the number of birds that arrived the previous spring.  But there’s danger ahead.  Its been reported that the mortality rate for songbirds during the fall migration and at the wintering sites may be as high as 85% due to disease, predators, accidents, weather, etc.


Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

 Flocking prior to and during fall migration, and continuing all winter, may in part be a safety mechanism to confuse predators with visual overload.  As opposed to most songbirds the swallows migrate in these large flocks during daylight, perhaps relying on visual clues for guidance.  This also allows them to feed on the fly.  The Tree Swallows will actually undergo a gradual molt during the trip to South Florida, the Gulf coast, Cuba, or Mexico, whereas the “Barnies” wait to molt until they have arrived at the wintering grounds in South America.


Coastal flock prior to fall migration

So the swallow’s sojourn in their summer breeding grounds appears to be a two part affair.  First mate, nest, and raise the young.  But when that’s accomplished congregate in great numbers, fellowship, teach the juveniles advanced flying skills, and build up fat reserves for migration.  And when the mysterious word is spoken, whether it’s hormonal, sunlight, or temperature, be ready to head south en masse.  Their return in the spring will not be in massive flocks but rather in smaller groups of survivors, coming north to start the cycle all over again.