Thursday, November 17, 2011

Flashes of Red

Now that the trees are stark and bare, the leaves nowhere except, as poet Mary Oliver writes, “underfoot, moldering in that black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries…” things hidden from us all summer become visible again.  The angles of twigs are drawn precisely against the gray sky, with hornet nests, vireo nests and gouty oak galls as their only adornment.  Withered ferns settle down to reveal the subtle shapes of the forest floor.  Steel gray glimmers of open water weave their way through the trunks and remind me of places I have yet to explore. 

The beauty of “stick season” as I learned to call it in Vermont, is subtle to say the least. After leaf-off and before snow the landscape seems more melancholy.  It’s easy to develop tunnel vision and stop noticing the woods. If we let them, these days of gray skies and brown ground can make us appreciate the bursts of color even more.  Have you seen the winterberry holly in the swamps!?  Bright red berries adorn every inch of every twig on female Ilex verticillata shrubs.  The male flowers occur on separate plants, and can’t produce fruit themselves. Botanists and Greeks call this characteristic “dioecious,” meaning “two houses.”  Being low in fat, the berries last until late winter for two reasons: they don’t go rancid quickly, and they aren’t eaten until other more energy-dense fruits are scarce.  Forty-nine species of birds eat the berries, from bluebirds and catbirds to our old friends the cedar waxwings. 

I’ve seen other flashes of red lately, too -- on my chilly cheeks, in holiday decorations, and on the crests of pileated woodpeckers.  It’s always thrilling to hear their wild laughing call, and see the brilliant flash of their white wing linings as they swoop through forest clearings. My ornithology professor called them “monkeys of the Northwoods” because of their raucous call. Twice last week, (when I was still braving twenty-degree dawns to bike to work,) I saw a pair darting across Highway M, and another pair on Garmisch Road. 

Pileated woodpeckers mate for life, and hold their territory year-round.  The female that startled me out of reading yesterday morning by swooping in for lunch at the base of an oak tree is the same one I eagerly photographed from a second-story window last spring.  You’ve probably noticed their large, rectangular holes in both softwood and hardwood trees.  They’ll drill anywhere they can find carpenter ants, which they extract with their sticky foot-long tongue.  Sometimes the hole is so large and the tree is so small that the trunk snaps right off! 

It’s no surprise that scientists and wildlife managers consider them “ecosystem engineers.”  Especially beneficial is their aversion to using the same nest cavity twice.  Every spring the pair will hollow out a new tree, often with two entrance holes, and the abandoned cavities are quickly re-purposed by ducks, squirrels, owls, bats, other woodpeckers, and wasps.  Pileated woodpeckers are the main source of large tree cavities in the forest!  It’s as if one family in the housing development built a new house every year and gave their old one away.

During the period of heavy logging near the turn of the last century, the populations of these crow-sized woodpeckers declined   As forests have recovered, so have the birds.  Though their numbers are slowly increasing, they still face hazards.  In younger forests, pileateds tend to use the oldest, largest trees for their roosts.  These taller trees are lightening rods, and can be dangerous to the young families.

Once snow falls it will be easy to track the woodpeckers’ eating habits.  Fresh woodchips around the base of a tree, or in the ski tracks, are a good reminder to look up.  Not only might you see a striking bird or their fresh excavations, you will jolt yourself out of tunnel vision and be ready to notice the next burst of beauty.

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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