I finished up my winter bird surveys last week, this year marking the eleventh year in a row I've visited this one site with 12 different locations and natural community types. We've had some great years in the past with 70 red headed woodpeckers in one chert woodland and literally hundreds of brilliant Eastern bluebirds on the crest of a ridge. This year's survey was fun, with the first winter count of 32 great blue herons in an old rookery site and at least 60 black vultures mixed in with 40 turkey vultures all sunning on a high cliff face.
With temperatures hovering around 15 degrees in the spring valley and the early morning sun barely up, our first stop was quiet. We picked up the golden-crowned kinglet we always find there, and the spring branch was rich with ducks of all kinds hanging out in the warm 56 degree waters. But along the walk, I saw the most awesome dead tree that a pileated woodpecker had been ripping apart looking for ants:
Pileated woodpeckers are truly charismatic creatures--large in size, a call that resembles a rainforest-dwelling creature, and their loud banging on trees as they excavate nest sites and hunt bugs. Their nest holes can also house swifts, owls, ducks and bats. And pileated woodpeckers aren't shy around suet feeders, either, so most rural Missouri bird feeders usually see these birds up close in the backyard.
Further down the trail, we saw a tree with concentric rings of holes around it, the work of a wintering woodpecker, the colorful yellow-bellied sapsucker. Roughly 8 feet up the tree, the top of the tree had fallen off with a very clean cut. On the ground was the fallen top of the hickory and at the site of the cut were clean concentric rings of sapsucker holes. The bird had worked the tree over so persistently that he chopped it down!
Winter birding is such a treat, especially when all the cedar waxwings show up on cedar trees and denude the evergreens of their pale blue berries. Birds in winter are remarkably easy to see with the leaves off the trees. We're in winter for the long haul now, but the days are growing longer ever slowly and in a couple of months we'll start seeing the early reports of Harbinger of Spring in the woodlands.