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Black-backed Woodpeckers in a small burn on Base Petawawa in Renfrew Co., Ontario

                                          by Chris Michener



 As a result of the article "What was found in the burn" by Margaret Carney in Seasons, Winter 1999, the magazine of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, a group of five curious naturalists went exploring on January 28, 2000. The burn was illustrated on page 30 of the article in a map showing recent burns and accompanied by a call for all birders to check them out!

The above picture was taken at the south end of a 100m by 700m burned area of Jack Pine with some small White Pine mixed in. The forest is residual, the remnants of a beautiful Jack Pine forest which was clear cut 2-3 years ago. You can see the cut behind the burned area. The burn is heavily blackened at the north end, but the south end has more Jack Pine survivors. Other burned areas on the west side of Base Petawawa were off limits to us. We were told live rounds may still exist in other burned areas.

We saw five female Black-backed Woodpeckers (BBWO) and two males. This concentration gives a ratio of 1 BBWO/ hectare, similar to the estimate in the article. This burn is postage stamp size, however. There was considerable evidence of insect infestation... tiny pin prick holes drilled through the Jack Pine bark. Woodpecker feeding holes showed the frenetic activity of the winter's woodpeckers. Also seen were two Hairy and one Downy Woodpecker in the burn. Some Black-capped Chickadees were present, also.

 picture 2
This picture is an example of how the BBWO feeds. We watched a male extract two bark beetle grubs from holes it made through the bark. First it chose a spot. We weren't sure how it decided on the location of the grub search. Perhaps by tapping the bark it can sense the difference in density of the area under the bark or perhaps it tests a spot to see if any sawdust (larval feeding leftovers) is present. In any case, it starts a hole or continues a hole that a larva has made and tests to see if the hole is wide enough to pull the grub through. It has to be able to open its beak wide enough to grasp the grub. It 'spits' the wood bits out as it works the hole deeper and wider. Once it grasps the larva, it pulls it out through the hole and in one gulp, it swallows it. It then moves to another area on the tree or flies to a different tree to continue its feeding.
    picture 3
This Jack Pine from the burn shows large areas of bark removed by the woodpecker in its feeding activity. This feeding is different than that used on Tamarack. In Tamarack stands, the BBWO chips the bark with a sideways motion removing large pieces and it strips extensive areas of bark searching for its insect meal. More of the Jack Pines showed holes like the tree above (picture 3) without much bark chipping. Perhaps this means that there is a greater population of bark beetles present in the burn than in our typical Tamarack stands.??

Not only upright trees were searched. Downed branches in brush piles, were tested as in picture 2.

Also in the burn were many vole tracks, which looked like zippering with two footprints and a tail line between. When I asked Bruce Winterbon what small mammal he thought they belonged to, he said there were two options...either a type of vole, or, if you find the slider on the zippering, you could open it and see what was underneath! On one vole trail was superimposed an imprint of a large bird, probably a Barred Owl. The story from the evidence in the snow indicated that the owl had tried to pick up the vole with its claws but the vole veered sideways and the owl missed. The owl settled briefly on the snow with wings outstretched before taking to the air again. The vole tracks continued past the impression the owl left in the shallow snow.
Other participants on the outing were Merv Fediuk, Manson Fleguel and Lynn Hardy.
Epilogue: A follow up trip to the burn site was taken on January 10, 2001 to determine if Black backed Woodpeckers would again be concentrated on the dead trees. Merv Fediuk, Leo Boland, Manson Fleguel and Ted and Kathy Krug (from Parry Sound) hiked into the burn area and found there was no evidence of any woodpeckers in the site. No woodpeckers of any species were present. Many of the trees now had chunks of peeled bark hanging from them as a result of the weathering effects of rain and snow, but there was no freshly chipped bark on the snow around the base of the trees, nor freshly chipped surfaces on the dead trees. It is assumed that the woodpeckers gather to feast on the larvae of the White-spotted Sawyer Beetle, and that this is a one year phenomenon, occurring during only the first winter after the fire. 






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