For the Birds Radio Program: Black-backed Woodpecker
The woodpecker family is one of my favorites. These birds play such a crucial role in the forest ecosystem, chiseling through hardwood to create cavities as shelter and nest sites for themselves and a wide variety of other creatures, killing enormous numbers of carpenter ants, wood-boring beetles, and other serious pests, and even providing food for the first migrant hummingbirds, kinglets, warblers, phoebes, and other birds that eat insects and running sap.
If l admire woodpeckers for this extraordinary ecological generosity, I love them for their beauty, strength of will, and interesting lives. I couldn’t possibly choose a single woodpecker for my favorite-well, maybe the Pileated because it’s so bizarrely beautiful and because I raised one once-but certainly one of my favorites is the Black-backed Woodpecker. This wonderful opportunist specializes on dead wood, so becomes most abundant after forest fires and disease die-offs. In Duluth the easiest place to find them is at Hawk Ridge in the stand of old pine trees east of the main overlook–many of these trees are diseased, providing perfect habitat for this bird. I saw many in Yellowstone National Park a few years after the devastating fires of 1988, and many in Custer State Park in South Dakota, again in areas severely burned by forest fires.
Two springs ago I went with my friend John Heid to an area about 50 miles north of Thunder Bay, where a huge acreage had been destroyed by fire. This is where I saw more Black-backed Woodpeckers than I’d seen in total in my entire life. John and I saw dozens, and there must have been a hundred in the entire stand. The birds must have been starting some nesting rituals, because they were far noisier than I’ve ever found Black-backed Woodpeckers, and were by far the easiest to find. Black-backs are easy to recognize if normally hard to find-they have a black back that glows like licorice in the softly-lit forest, and males have a brilliant yellow crown. But they seem to rebel against that old adage that little children should be seen but not heard by following the exact opposite pattern, making plenty of noise flaking the bark off dead trees and hammering into dead wood, but somehow staying out of sight unless you really pay attention.
I took a walk in Port Wing on Memorial Day this year, and finally, after 25 years of birding there, added a Black-backed Woodpecker to my Port Wing list. She was a female in perfect plumage, working on an old dead pine tree on Big Pete Road, right in my favorite spot in all of Port Wing. Big Pete Road has virgin white pines and other beautiful old growth. It’s my favorite spot for finding nesting Golden-crowned Kinglets, and on a quarter mile hike in June or early July I can usually hear 15 species of warblers. I saw my first baby ravens on Big Pete Road, and also the first black bear I ever chanced upon when I was alone in the woods, so this was a wonderful place to see my first Bayfield County Black-backed Woodpecker. I watched her for about ten minutes as she worked high up in the tree. I don’t think she was working on a nest hole, because the branch she was in was horizontal, but she sure was concentrating on something. I’ll watch for her in the weeks ahead, in hopes of actually finding a male and a nest, but this first Port Wing sighting of this striking bird will stay in my heart for a long, long time.