Tag Archives: Woodpeckers

Warming Up To Winter Wildlife

If you’re like me, by March the spring jitters have well and truly set in. Balmy teases of April weather spark bouts of cabin fever. The drip of snowmelt, the lengthening of days and, to a nuanced eye, the presence of egg masses in our region’s vernal pools all herald the arrival of warm weather, regardless of what the groundhog sees.As of this morning, however, there is still snow on the ground. My car thermometer read a frosty 36 degrees  at 8 a.m. Major League Baseball teams are playing spring training games, but Old Man Winter is still around for two more weeks.

Instead of holing up next to the fireplace with a thermos, pining for that day you can spring your clock forward one hour, my suggestion is to get outside! Winter presents fantastic opportunities to observe wildlife, you just have to know where and how to look for it.

At Riverbend Park, migratory ducks make this relatively calm section of the Potomac River their home during the winter months. Hundreds of ring-necked ducks, common mergansers, coots, buffleheads, redheads and many other species can be found dabbling and diving in the open water right in front of our visitor center. These ducks will be gone by April, so there’s only a narrow window to catch sight of our friends from up north. A pair of binoculars is an important tool for winter wildlife enthusiasts and not just for spotting waterfowl. The absence of foliage makes viewing from afar a rewarding pursuit. A long hard look at the sycamores and silver maples on river-dividing Watkins Island may yield a glimpse of the fox squirrel, a large tree squirrel more common in the Western reaches of the state than here in the Piedmont.


Deer leave hoof prints in the snow.

Deer leave hoof prints in the snow.


While some of Riverbend’s warm-weather birds take to the tropics for the winter, others stay year round. Winter can prove to be the best time to view some real dazzling plumage against an otherwise stark background. The reds, yellows, blues, and gold of resident woodpeckers, cardinals, jays, and bluebirds create a vibrant, dynamic palette in and around the bird feeders on the visitor center patio. Woodpeckers like the yellow-bellied sapsucker and finches like the Pine Siskin are some of the rarer species seen by Riverbend naturalists this time of year.

A walk through the woods after a snowfall can also provide clues as to which wintering mammals are active this time of year. Along the flood-plain, footprints in the snow-flecked ice reveal the presence of a pair of otters. Somewhere along the riverbank, their den, a maze of tunnels burrowed into the hillside, will soon house baby pups. For now, the path of the footprints suggest the otters have been popping in and out of air holes cut into the ice; perhaps evidence of playful courting before the female accepts the male as her mate.

Winter gets an unfair rap as a period of lifelessness, sandwiched in between the colorful transformation of autumn and the fresh energy of spring. Venture out to Riverbend, or any other FCPA park and you will become instantly aware of winter’s dynamism and beauty.  The faint quacking of ducks, the echo of pileated woodpeckers drilling for insects and faded hoof prints in fresh snow are subtle reminders that nature can brave the cold better than we can.

Written by Ethan Kuhnhenn, park/recreation specialist, Riverbend Park

View On Nature: Woodpeckers

“Guess who!? Ha-ha-ha HA-ha!” – Woody Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Winter is a colorful season for woodpeckers in Annandale. Those of us at a certain age can remember Woody Woodpecker’s signature quote and his subsequent maniacal laughter. However, when folks call us at Hidden Oaks Nature Center to ask about woodpeckers knocking on their houses, they generally aren’t laughing.

Woodpeckers knock for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is communication and territorial establishment. That’s why sometimes they knock on metal drainpipes and gutters to the puzzlement of our patrons. “But it’s not wood!” they contest. Woodpeckers though, know that drainpipes, like many hollow logs and snags in the forest, are amplifiers. Once they learn through experience how raucously they can knock, they return to the source. That’s how woodpeckers tell others of their presence and/or perhaps availability. That’s the good news they want to broadcast.

However, they might be broadcasting bad news to you. If they’re knocking on your wooden eaves or fascia boards they might be hunting insects that are already rooting around in there, potential headaches for homeowners.

And about those headaches — why don’t woodpeckers suffer from them? It turns out that, unlike heavy-metal millennials in a mosh pit, a woodpecker’s head is designed for head-banging. They can knock up to 22 times per second, and their tongues wrap all the way around the backs of their heads to provide excellent cushioning for their brains. This enables woodpeckers to withstand decelerations (knocking and its after-effects) at more than 100 times the impact than can humans. In fact, woodpeckers’ shock absorption qualities were intensely studied to design cases for flight recorders in airplanes.

That same super-long tongue is the scourge of insects everywhere, which wrongly think they’re safe hiding in deep holes of logs and standing dead trees or buried in the wood siding of your house.

Woodpeckers use their excavating skills to hollow out burrows, which are often used year-round as homes. Sometimes they’ll use existing holes, but some individual birds like to create their own nesting cavity each year. Different strokes for different species.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

At Hidden Oaks right now, there’s potential for you to see downy, hairy, red-bellied, northern flickers and, during really cold weather, yellow-bellied sapsuckers at the suet feeders. You might also spy the much-larger pileated woodpecker with the prominent comb often thought of in connection to the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker. Cartoonist Walter Lantz, however, noted that the acorn woodpecker from the west was the actual inspiration for his ideas in the 1940s.

Woodpeckers breed in the late winter/early spring, but the pairing-off and courtship often starts in winter. During this time certain species get their brightest coloration to be more attractive to potential mates. This effect makes woodpeckers brilliant and vivid contrasts to the backdrop of winter’s bleakest, gray months.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Do you want to see woodpeckers in your backyard this winter? Suet feeders are the best way. Fill them with commercially-sold suet bricks, or just fill them with raw beef fat purchased from or donated by your local butcher.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center keeps suet and fat feeders out during the winter so our patrons can view these beautiful creatures on the fly. Come see for yourself.

By Michael McDonnell, manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center