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Christmas bird numbers could be low

Northwoods Notebook

A male downy woodpecker, the smallest woodpecker species in North America, refuses to be intimidated into giving up his place at the suet to a male pileated woodpecker, North America’s largest woodpecker. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

The annual Christmas Bird Count period started today and extends through Jan. 5. The Iron Mountain-based version takes place today.

This is the 120th year for the count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a local count compiler who will coordinate observers in that area in advance; no individual reports are accepted for the CBC. Count volunteers tend to follow specified routes within that specific CBC circle, counting every bird they see or hear during the day.

Birding experts in the region already are predicting this year’s tally likely will be disappointing. In some years, the weather might be warm enough to still allow open water that keeps a few waterfowl species around for the count. Not this year. Or conditions to the north might be poor enough — a bad season for rodents or pine cones or fruit — to convince some Canadian winter finches and other birds to come south. Again, not this year.

Still, it’s worth recording what is out there, to keep a running record of local birds and track patterns for populations.

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson again is coordinating the local count, which is a bit non-traditional for a CBC in that the territory is not a circle but set from the Wisconsin state line east to the Menominee County line, and from Granite Bluff south to the Menominee River.

Carlson doesn’t know why it originally was set up that way, but it continues to be used so results can be honestly compared from year to year.

She, too, anticipates it will not be a great day of birding. Many of her counters just watch backyard feeders rather than actively search and most of what she’s heard so far is birds have been sparse in number and variety.

But Carlson did get a few encouraging signs earlier in the week. A pair of male evening grosbeaks — yellow and black, like an oversized goldfinch with serious yellow eyebrows — showed up Sunday and returned Tuesday, so perhaps will cooperate for the count. And she heard cedar waxwings Thursday, though never caught sight of them.

She also thinks feeder activity will pick up now that snow has arrived in earnest.

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Even when other birds seem scarce during the winter, woodpeckers remain reliable visitors in the region if the right food is put out.

The Upper Peninsula has a host of native woodpeckers, several of which remain year-round. They include the smallest, the downy, and what likely is the largest woodpecker in North America, the pileated.

The latter, sadly, gets to be largest by default. The previous holders of that title — the imperial in Mexico and the ivory-billed — both are feared long extinct, although some slim hope remains for the ivory-billed after a 2004 video shot in the “Big Woods” of eastern Arkansas seemed to show a possible ivory-billed; that sighting has been disputed and no further records have surfaced.

Imperials, once the world’s largest modern woodpecker, haven’t been seen since the 1950s, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org.

Both the imperial and the ivory-billed looked a lot like the pileated — black and white body, red crest at least on males, though both sexes of pileateds have a red crest, with the male distinguished by a red moustache as well.

What helped the crow-sized pileated and perhaps doomed the other two woodpeckers is the pileated is not a specialist, tied to a particular tree or stage of growth. Its two larger relatives both relied on old-growth forests, so dwindled as those forests were felled.

The pileated, meanwhile, appears to have increased its population from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

They do still have certain needs to thrive in a habitat, according to the Cornell site.

“Pileated woodpeckers rely on large, standing dead trees and fallen logs — something that property managers may consider undesirable. It’s important to maintain these elements both for the insect food they provide and for the many species of birds and mammals that use tree cavities,” the site advised.

While the hairy woodpecker and its “Mini-Me,” the downy, reliably come to suet, the pileated needs it to be on a setting it can comfortably hold onto while feeding. Look for large-sized suet cage or attach the feeder to a tree trunk or, ideally, a standing dead tree.

The type of suet is important as well. Some brands add a lot of filler seeds or grains that won’t appeal to the woodpeckers. Carlson recommends looking at the label — if suet is listed first, followed by more quality foods such as peanuts or black oil sunflower seeds, with corn or other fillers last if listed at all — go with that. Grocery stores, too, often will offer just suet or beef fat that has been rendered and shaped into logs.

While suet is safe to put out during winter, best to discard it once warmer temperatures return. Like any fat, it can go rancid. Woodpeckers in spring and summer also establish nesting territories, so encouraging other woodpeckers to come in to feed causes conflict and stress, Carlson noted, adding by that point plenty of natural food should be available.

The other woodpecker with a fondness for suet is the red-bellied, a relatively recent arrival to the region that has been expanding its range.

The Upper Peninsula in winter also can have black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, but they specialize in feeding on beetle larvae that infest dead or dying trees. The black-backed, in particular, will regularly shift its range to forage on burned trees after forest fires.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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