It all started with coffee

It all started with coffee

Like many of my stories, this one starts with coffee. Me and my neighbor, let’s call him “Pasta R” (pronounced “Pah-stah Arrr” with a heavy nasal accent) have been enjoying morning cups of coffee every so often for a couple of years now. Those mornings have always been wonderful. That said, it had been a while since we’d coffeed it up before this specific mid-March morning.

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This particular morning, we decided we’d walk around the neighborhood drinking our coffee while we birdwatched. We’d check on the molting loon in the harbor and look for the early song sparrow in another neighbors’ hedge kind of stuff (this was mid-March for crying out loud).

“The red bellied woodpecker call is a sound that stops you in your tracks.”

So, we filled our mugs with warmth and headed out his door, only to make it about a dozen steps before we stopped. We could hear the distinctive churring of the Red-bellied Woodpeckers and both acknowledged the woodpecker’s presence with two fingers on two arms pointing towards the general direction of the sound. The red bellied woodpecker call is a sound that stops you in your tracks. The walking was nice while it lasted. 

Things went kinda quickly at first

The call came from the oak growing between Pasta R’s house and the road. He told me he’d seen both male and female red bellied woodpeckers in that tree recently. And clearly, there was one in the tree as we spoke.

I said, “wouldn’t it be cool if they nested in this tree. But it’s too early,” (it was March for crying out loud). And as if on cue, a woodpecker landed atop a rotten protuberance jutting out from the center of the oak trunk, maybe 30 feet up, before disappearing.

Pasta R and I slowly made our way around the tree for a better view. I took to the north route around the trunk, and he threw his luck behind the southern route—our eyes glued to the rotten protuberance as we circled the tree. I saw nothing. The north was not the way to go on that fateful morning. “There it is,” I heard Pasta R murmur. His eyes were fixed on a cavity in the protuberance.

I looked up to see the red belled woodpecker fly headfirst out of the opening. The rest is history!

And it’s a history that must be told!

And so, the Red-bellied Woodpecker cavity watch party began, and Pasta R was just the person to run such an enterprise.

You see, red-bellied woodpeckers are woodpeckers of a different kind and when you have one nesting in your yard, you have to watch.

Woodpeckers are all in the family Picadae, and the black and white year-round favorites that visit feeder stations regularly (downy and hairy) are in the genus Picoides. We like Picoides, really, we do. Some of our favorite woodpeckers are Picoides—the endangered red-cockaded to the south and the American three toed woodpecker to north to name two!

But Red-bellieds aren’t Picoides, and that is fine. We like woodpecker diversity. I mean, there are flickers and sapsuckers. We like them all and they are all unique in their own ways (that’s what makes ‘em unique!), but this is about a species of Melanerpes! Melanerpes carolinus to be exact.

Melanerpes are cool

It’s a genus of a different kind. Where Picoides is full of generic woodpeckers (standard look and behavior some might say), Melanerpes plays around and adds some panache to the basic woodpecker aura. There is one Melanerpes species that makes holes in trees to store acorns by the hundreds in granaries. These are called acorn woodpeckers (M. formicivorus) and they were all over my college campus (University of California Santa Cruz – home of the fightin’ Banana Slugs (and acorn woodpeckers?)!

There are (at least) two Melanerpes that have lots of red on their heads. One is aptly called the red-headed woodpecker (M. erythrocephalus) and the other is called… the red-bellied woodpecker (Ha!). People will sometimes ask why the red-bellied isn’t called the red-headed, and then they see a photo of the red-headed and understand. And yes, the red-bellied does have a wash of red on its belly. The belly just happens to be the hardest area to see on a woodpecker. So, it goes. Some common names are headscratchers and others are in line to be changed. The birds don’t care what you call them.

One of my favorite melanerpes is the Puerto Rican woodpecker (Melanerpes portoricensis). Islands and island biogeography can tell tales of wonderfully unique adaption and evolution, and the Puerto Rican woodpecker being endemic to the Puerto Rico archipelago (common on Puerto Rico, rare on Vieques) is one of those tales. Somewhere back in time, a Melanerpes of a different kind got to Puerto Rico and decided, “hey, I’m staying”. And now we have Puerto Rican Woodpeckers, only (really) found on Puerto Rico and the only resident Woodpecker on the island. Come to think of it, it was probably at least two Melanerpes of a different (but the same kind) that made it to Puerto Rico back in the day. But that’s a whole other story.

Where were we…

I first got turned onto red-bellied woodpeckers working at an environmental education program called “Nature’s Classroom” in central Ohio. They were everywhere, and we heard them so often they were named the official bird of the high ropes course, a legacy no one can deny.

That was back in ’95, and I’ve truly appreciated every time I’ve seen them since, and they have had a presence at most of the places I’ve lived on the east coast from Georgia to Cape Cod.

Seeing them in Maine has been a treat. When I moved to Vinalhaven in 2004 I recall my friend getting really excited about seeing a red-bellied on island, and rightly so and good for him! He’d never seen them before on Vinalhaven and this was someone who paid attention to such things. He was and still is a great observer.

Seeing them in Maine was somewhat irregular. Sometimes, I would go multiple years without seeing them, even though there were reports of red-bellied woodpeckers during most falls and winters in Maine.  It’s an island I mean, not the easiest place to get to and let’s be honest, it’s not for everyone.

We moved to the mainland (St Geroge) in 2015 and since, I’ve seen them every winter, often during the Christmas Bird counts. In December of 2015 someone sent me a video of a red-bellied excavating a cavity on a hill on Vinalhaven. Welcome! You are still from away.

And so that day in March….

Pasta R had already spotted the cavity, and the cavity was already big enough that adult red-bellied woodpeckers could fit inside. A quick glance at the species info in “The Birder’s Handbook” (one of the three most important books of my life so far) told me that nests were excavated in seven to ten days usually.

PR (the neighbor, not Puerto Rico!) started noticing bits of cavity excavations landing on the hood of his truck parked not too far from the oak tree. Bits of wood that was pecked from inside the tree and then thrown (can you throw with a bill?) out the cavity opening. This went on for more than ten days. Things were taking long (just saying). I don’t know, maybe the adults were being distracted.

Frequent reports

The cavity and the woodpeckers were in good hands. PR and his family were fully on board, fully committed to the nest. No playing in that part of the yard, keep your voices down(!), and windows open to hear if starlings have returned. And consistent, daily (if not hourly) check ins on the status of the nest. Great nest watching is an art, and PR and family were masters.

I would get text updates and the texts changed tone as the scene developed. During incubation it was, “quiet at the nest”, “parents going in and out”. Once the eggs hatched texts changed to, “bringing in food!” and one about fecal sac removal that I can not quote.  PR and family were seeing it all.

From May 25-31, pre-fledging texts became “youngster at the opening” and “the parents seem to be trying to coax them out of the cavity.”

I went over on a Tuesday and saw the parents feeding one of the youngsters at the opening, and they looked strong. It was remarkedly quiet, and I say remarkably because downy and hairy woodpecker youngsters are loud, consistently begging when they are about to fledge (Picoides, am I right?). This one hardly made a peep. Maybe that’s another reason why I like Melanerpes so much. They only say what they have to, if that.

Plans change

The plan was to return Saturday morning (last Saturday, June 1), with Amy to chill and watch the scene. First thing that morning I got the text and saw the video PR had taken of the young leaving the nest just an hour before we were scheduled to arrive. My smile was huge when I read the message and watched the video. Happy that the red-bellieds successfully fledged a brood in the neighborhood, happy for PR and his family for watching two months of red-bellied nesting activity, from excavation to fledg-u-lation (not a word)!

What now, what next?

All that is left now is to retrieve the rifle from Pasta R. Who knows how the red-bellieds would have fared without Pasta R’s sharp shooting, but we know it didn’t hurt any. Any red-bellieds that it. Starlings on the other hand were dropping like flies for a bit. Schieffelin’s legacy.

And the red-bellieds are still in Pasta R’s more immediate neighborhood, I live down the road and do not see them. But the red-bellied sightings have been infrequent at best since they left the nest. It’s not over, but the focus of their world is no longer the nest. Now observation is a little removed, but hopefully there will be visits from red-bellieds from here on out.

And so, it’s on to the next thing and then onto the one after that. That’s nature observation for you. So much potential and so much to see. Hard not to be at least a little excited when you think about it. Who knows what’s next? Either way, I’ll see you out there!

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