An odd duck, and the upside of forest fires
October 23rd, 2012
I had read on Ontbirds that a super-rare female Tufted Duck
was being seen
at Shirley's Bay. This is a Eurasian species that has only strayed into our
area once before in recorded history. So I headed down to the boat launch
parking lot, joined a large group of birders with scopes, and had a look. Success!
Of my three lifers yesterday, this is one I kind of have to call a
technicality. The female Tufted Duck doesn't share the male's obvious strange
. The only thing to distinguish her from her new-world
counterpart (Ring-Necked Duck) is a teeny little nub of feathers on the back
of the head. I saw the duck, and I saw the teeny nub. But no way by myself
would I even have noticed, much less thought it significant, much, much
less confidently identified her on the basis of it!
Bob Cermak, one of the local experts, was there. As I was about to leave, I
overheard him tell someone that a Black-Backed
had been reported at Lime Kiln Trail, and my ears perked way
up. Black-Backed is one of the two boreal woodpeckers that are seldom seen in
Ottawa, and had never been seen by me. So I immediately hopped in my car and
zipped over there, where I intersected with Bob's group and ended up falling
in with them.
There was a forest fire at Lime Kiln Trail earlier this year. A forest fire is
generally seen as an unfortunate thing. But for certain birds, and for the
birding world, it's actually a big positive. Birds, like other creatures,
evolved in the presence of natural fires. They have ways of dealing with it.
Some have even evolved to specialize in burned-over areas, for various
reasons--maybe because they like the resulting open habitat, or because they
prefer to dig their nest holes in burnt trees, or because their preferred
insect prey specialize in burns. Naturalists call them "fire followers."
A lot of those birds are in trouble now. Unfortunately evolution is blind, and
didn't know that humans were going to come along and devastate the "fire
follower" niche. Fire prevention policies have even driven a few species to
near-extinction. (The tide is now being turned in some cases via the use of
prescribed burns.) Burn sites are at a premium, so when a new one appears,
it's a given that interesting birds will show up there. An old burn site in
Constance Bay, for instance, is Ottawa's only known location for breeding
Red-Headed Woodpeckers: a single pair of them. Lime Kiln Trail, or at least
part of it, is now such a site, and assuming the city leaves it more or less
alone, it could remain so for years.
The Black-Backed Woodpecker report was recent and news to all of us, but as we
explored the site, it became clear that the species had been there for months,
and probably more than one of them. The telltale sign of boreal woodpeckers is
bark stripped off of dead trees. They eat a special kind of beetle larvae that
tunnel under the bark. There were trees in those woods that had been more than
half de-barked. Trees with heaps of bark piled under them.
I wasn't the only one who was kicking myself that I hadn't thought of it
sooner. I knew about fire followers. And I had been planning on going there in
spring, searching for Red-Headed Woodpeckers, Olive-Sided Flycatchers and
others. It just didn't occur to me to do it in fall.
So we fanned out over the burn site, pored over every promising tree, listened
carefully for the sound of slow tapping, and came up empty. Tons of Downy and
Hairy Woodpeckers, the most I've ever seen in one place (clearly burn sites
are of interest even to some birds that don't specialize in them per se), but
Damned if I was giving up. I went home, had lunch, showered, and went back out
solo. This time I found it! Specifically her--a female. Which proves that
there is at least a pair, since the original report was of a male. Have they
bred? Will they breed? I can't wait to find out.
I have no pictures as yet, since she flew off before I got the chance to close
in on her. But I'll be back to try again.
ETA: Success, photos here!
This autumn has been like magic. So many surprises. This afternoon,
twenty-four Sandhill Cranes were circling on thermals practically right over
my house. I wonder what else it has in store?