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Things to look for now that it’s winter

It seems strange, but daylight will last a little longer each day now, even though the official season of winter has just begun. Longer periods of sunshine should, at least in theory, mean more solar warming. I doubt that we’ll feel much of that warmth for at least a couple of months, though. On the other hand, a friend and I saw a lonely bluebird just a few days ago. I wish we’d seen that symbol of spring on our recent Christmas bird count.

I’m going to be watching (and listening) extra closely when I’m near the woods in the weeks ahead. Twice in as many weeks I have come across signs that a pileated woodpecker or two may living in our area. It’s been nearly a year since I saw one in our neighborhood in Nevada, but we spotted recent woodpecker work on a living, but hollow, basswood tree during our Christmas count that certainly could have been done by a pileated woodpecker. Only pileated woodpeckers are large and powerful enough to spend time pecking large, elongated holes in living wood to get at deeply buried grubs. The exposed underbark of the tree was still bright and fresh around the hole we saw in the old basswood near Indian Creek. I suppose it could also have been a squirrel trying to enlarge an access into the hollow center of the tree in order to use it as a winter den site, but it’s more fun to think that it could have been a rare pileated woodpecker.

Most woodpeckers drill small, shallow, round holes in softer, dead wood while they’re feeding. They seldom penetrate much below the bark. They also tend to stay well up in a tree and seldom feed close to the ground. Other woodpeckers will excavate larger holes for nesting purposes, but they wouldn’t be doing that at this time of year. We also spotted a woodpecker nest hole well up on a dead limb near the old basswood that appeared much larger than any that would have been made by our usual local woodpeckers. We’ll be watching that site as spring gets closer to see who might be using it.

Then, last week, while chasing a young heifer that had gotten out of a fenced cow yard, another friend and I spotted very recent woodpecker work on a dead tree that also looked very much like that of a pileated woodpecker. Large chips of rotted wood lay scatted on the snow all round the dead tree. The excavated areas were extensive and included places down near the ground. Pileated woodpeckers frequently tear apart old rotten stumps near the ground as they look for food. Some of the deeper excavations showed the characteristic elongated, almost rectangular shape that pileated woodpeckers are noted for, too. This site was near the Skunk River many miles from Nevada, so it probably wasn’t the same bird. Other species could have been feeding at that site, but we’ll be watching and listening in that area, too, just in case a rare pileated woodpecker is living in the area. The listening part is because the call of a pileated woodpecker is distinctive. Like the bird, it’s larger and louder than any of its distant woodpecker kin. Once heard, it’s unmistakable even when the bird isn’t seen.

A recent sighting of a big old buck deer near my friend’s farm means that he had again escaped hunters as the second shotgun deer season drew to a close. A number of hunters have been watching for him, but he’s managed to elude all who pursue him for several years. My friend found one of his shed antlers. It dwarfs those of other large bucks that have been taken in the area in recent years. He has learned where he can safely rest and lay low while hunters scour the woods looking for him, and in so doing has passed his superior genes along to several generations of young fawns. Deer numbers may be down from what they were a few years ago in our area, but the old herd buck may have passed some of his smarts along, too. Wild deer don’t tend to live long lives, but that old boy may just do something that few wild deer ever do – die of old age. His descendants will likely figure ways to survive and prosper, too.

(Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation.)

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