Winter Woodpeckers

October 28, 2014.  We’ve experienced some beautiful fall weather this last part of October. A recent warming trend has bumped temperatures up so that it feels more like mid-September in the swamp this morning. As with last week, there is a good deal of woodpecker activity around the low boardwalk.  I observe three flickers consuming poison ivy berries while ignoring a nearby swamp tupelo laden with attractive, bluish-black drupes. Nearby, a fourth flicker is drumming very rapidly on the end of a large, dead cypress limb, producing a sound like that of an air impact wrench that mechanics use to mount tires.

Northern flicker by John Grego.

Shortly, I see another woodpecker species, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, also feeding on poison ivy berries. And not far away a pileated is working over a half-dead tupelo and several red-bellied woodpeckers are on the scene as well. From October through next April the swamp will be hosting three species of winter woodpeckers – sapsucker, flicker, and red-headed woodpecker – in addition to its four full-time resident species. All three swell the Congaree woodpecker population by perhaps fifty percent. How do the resident woodpeckers cope with this horde of winter arrivals? In nature, direct competition is a sure-fire way to create winners and losers, so I imagine over the millennia some sort of accommodation has been reached to minimize competition and conflict and allow all seven species to coexist together. The sapsucker, for example, has developed it unique niche by feeding on sap, while the red-headed woodpecker specializes in hoarding acorns. But I am not exactly sure how the flicker fits in with the other woodpeckers to reduce competition.

Red-headed woodpecker by John Grego.

A deciduous holly is attracting the company of several birds, including two lingering male black-throated blue warblers, two ruby-crowned kinglets, and one golden-crowned kinglet. Later the black-throated blues move off and are replaced by a very drab female, so different in plumage it could be another species. The holly has a lot of dead, shriveled and curled brown leaves which may be sheltering the insect food the birds are going after.

Farther down the trail another deciduous holly is providing fuel for more late migrants on their long journey to the tropics, a pair (or at least I assume they are connected) of Swainson’s thrushes feeding on the holly’s bright red berries. This species may be the holly of choice for frugivores (fruit and berry-eating animals) in the swamp this winter since American holly berries are scarce this year.

Pileated woodpecker.

By early afternoon, on my way back, a light breeze periodically stirs the canopy and sends the leaves tumbling down like rain.