2017-12-09 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Beavers, Woodpeckers, Deer Inhabit Island in Winter
By Patricia Martin

Here we are in the middle of the holiday season. Pumpkins and cornstalks are giving way to Christmas lights and garland. In the natural world, things also are changing. The winds are really beginning to blow. The temperature is beginning to drop, and the leaves, for the most part, have fallen — although I still have a ton of leaves on my apple trees. Despite the wind and rain and snow, it is a great time to get out and see the beauty of our Island home.

Every few days, my dog and I take a walk in the late afternoon, down to “The Cove” to check on our friends, the beavers. I was there on the day in late October when half the lodge was washed away by a fierce east wind. I am happy to report that the beavers have been steadily working to rebuild the portion of the lodge that was lost to the rough water. With the water so high this year, the large rocks that were placed around “The Cove” in the 1960s, when a marina area was going to be built during the Mackinac College days, no longer protect the lodge from rough east winds. So let’s hope that the lodge survives the winter. Maybe the beavers will build their own breakwater. Each time I’ve been down to “The Cove”, I have seen at least one of the beavers in the water near the shore. People have been bringing them apples, pumpkins, and a variety of branches to help them get ready for the winter. I have seen several juveniles swimming and playing together. The last time I was there, I apparently startled an adult beaver. I suddenly heard the loud splat of a beaver’s tail hitting the water and, looking over, saw a large beaver I judged to weigh 40 to 50 pounds (they can weigh as much as 60 pounds) swimming away from shore toward the lodge. I suspect it may have been the momma beaver. Apparently, she was warning the youngsters of our approach. The beavers also have taken down a couple more of the trees in “The Cove” area, including balsam and poplars, and I saw parts of them added to the lodge.

At left: American Beaver (Photo- graph by Nancy May) At left: American Beaver (Photo- graph by Nancy May) 
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Photograph by Betty Murcko) Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Photograph by Betty Murcko) This is also a great time to see some of the year-around birds. With most of the leaves down, the forests are much more open and it is easier to spy our feathered friends. On the last few rides on my horse in early November, I saw a number of dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, northern cardinals, barred and great horned owls, and, of course, our friends, the woodpeckers.

Many woodpeckers spend the winters here at Mackinac, although a few head a bit further south, including the northern flicker, whose bright-white rump patch is easy to pick out when it’s flitting from place to place, or the less-often seen redheaded woodpecker. Red-headed woodpeckers sometimes spend their winters in the southern tier of counties in the Lower Peninsula, although many go further south. Other species are with us year around.

At left: White-tailed Deer (Photograph by Clark Bloswick) At left: White-tailed Deer (Photograph by Clark Bloswick) Probably the showiest yeararound woodpecker is also our largest, the pileated woodpecker, which may be pronounced either “pie-lee-ated” or “pill-ee-ated” - take your pick. Its flaming-red crest, black-and-white coloring, large size, swooping flight, and maniacal call are so distinctive that it’s impossible to mistake this bird. If you’ve never seen one, just think of Woody Woodpecker and you get the idea. I liken them in flight to miniature pterodactyls. These loud and mighty birds like mature forests or deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forest, where they nest. A mated pair excavates a cavity in the trunk of a dead or dying tree for their nest, and doing so can take three to six weeks. They line the nest with wood chips. During breeding, they usually lay four eggs, which they incubate for two to three weeks before the eggs hatch. Both parents feed the young. Their holes often are used by other birds and mammals when the woodpeckers have abandoned them. Pileated woodpeckers require large territories — up to 100 acres of mature forest. Some sources indicate these birds are rarely encountered owing to the large size of their territories, but here on Mackinac, they are commonly seen and heard. Their hammering echoes through the woods and their loud, fast laugh and rather rolling “woika-woikawoika woika” is heard for miles. Evidence of these woodpeckers is easy to find on the Island, as their strong, heavy bills chisel rectangular holes in cedars, aspens, and other trees. These rectangular holes are often fist-size or larger and are made as the birds are searching for their favorite food, carpenter ants. Often, large piles of wood chips can be found at the base of a tree they have chiseled. Firemen once showed me a photo of a tree on fire, which had flames shooting out of a dozen or more pileated woodpecker holes. Some sources say these birds are shy of people, but I’ve been within about 15 feet of them when they were working on a rotted stump. By the way, woodpeckers’ bills become shorter as they age, which should probably not come as a surprise, considering the pounding the bills take.

Two of the much smaller and more commonly seen yeararound woodpeckers are the diminutive (six to seven inches long) downy and the larger (eight to 9.5 inches long) hairy woodpecker. The males of both these species have red patches on the backs of their heads, a marking the females lack. Both species have clear-white bellies and black wings with white spots. The downy has a white back, a short, stubby bill, and dark spots on the white outer tailfeathers. The hairy has an unspotted black tail with purewhite outer feathers and a longer, tapered bill that is about as long as its head is wide. These birds often are attracted to backyard feeders, especially those offering suet in the winter.

In many of the older bird field guides, they indicate that the red-bellied woodpecker is not generally found in the northern Lower Peninsula nor the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; however, this mid-sized (nine to 10.5 inches long) bird is now fairly commonly seen on the Island year-around, even occasionally coming to suet feeders. With our changing climate, we can expect to see more birds like these moving north. These woodpeckers are black and white barred on their backs with a white rump patch and a reddish tinge on the belly, which is often difficult to see. The males have a red nape on their neck, which extends up to their forehead. The females only have the red on the nape.

One last note about sightings: No, we don’t have reindeer for Christmas; however, we still do have some whitetailed deer. Clark Bloswick has recorded two does and three fawns on his camera, and there has recently been reported the presence of a buck (two other bucks apparently swam away this fall).

Remember, even though it is a bit colder, do get out to see the beauty of our Island home. Happy holidays!

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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