It's a 5.5- by 4.25-inch blue stapled booklet. On the cover is a black-and-white drawing of a downy woodpecker perched on a tree along with the words "a checklist of birds." I can't remember where I picked it up, but it has become a helpful reference and it's where I keep my "life list" of birds I've seen.
Inside the compact booklet many species of wild birds are listed along the left side in groups such as "herons and bitterns," "owls," "warblers" and "woodpeckers." Four columns give information about each bird's frequency and seasonal distribution in four national forests -- Voyageurs, Nicolet, Superior and, the closest to my home, Chippewa. The booklet was published by Lake States Interpretive Association, International Falls.
I started using the booklet a few years ago. At first I merely put a check mark next to the name of each bird I knew I'd seen sometime in my life. Rock doves, aka domestic pigeons, for instance, are uncommon in my area, but I certainly saw them when I lived in the Twin Cities and many other times and places in my life.
I put checks next to pileated woodpecker, robin and mourning dove, as well as ruby-throated hummingbird and all the other birds I'd seen many times. Then I saw a few birds I hadn't been able to identify before. For instance, I referred to my bird book several times to make sure I correctly identified a rough-legged hawk last year. Next to the name I wrote "'01" for the year and "Orr" to note where I saw it. Two other birds now have "'01" next to them -- the wild turkey I saw in Crosslake ("CL") and the sandhill cranes I spotted in a field near Pine River ("PR").
Last week I made my first "'02" entry -- a red-headed woodpecker I saw in my own back yard. I vaguely remember seeing one many years ago, but I haven't the slightest clue when or where it was. So I was thrilled when the only true woodpecker in our area with a completely red head perched on our "woodpecker tree."
This dead tree originally was resting on the ground just inside the woods behind our house. The surface was free of bark and very smooth from years of weather. There were some interesting worm shaped holes in the sides, and we thought the woodpeckers would enjoy it. So Tom "replanted" it near our bird feeders in the back yard, and now we hang suet from it sometimes.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers have visited on many occasions. I've even seen a pileated there once or twice. Blue jays and rose-breasted grosbeaks are among the many feathered friends that have perched there waiting their turn at the feeder or the bird bath. Last Wednesday, however, the red-headed woodpecker landed on this favorite resting spot.
About the size of a hairy woodpecker or yellow-bellied sapsucker, the blue book lists the red-headed as "rare" in my area, though I read that they were once very common in eastern North America. Loss of habitat and competition with European starlings for nesting sites are suspected as possible contributions to their decline, as well as the habit of removing dead trees for firewood as they nest in barkless dead trees.
They spend time in northern Minnesota only in summer and are found in forest edges, orchards, open pine woods and groves, and tall trees in open country. These birds are omnivorous -- perhaps the most omnivorous of woodpeckers.
They eat insects, nuts, berries and sometimes even bark or eggs and nestlings of other birds. They occasionally drill dead trees for larvae, but more often catch flying insects. They store the majority of their food in natural crevices or holes.
The red-head in my back yard seemed content with sunflower seeds from my tube feeder -- the only place it visited other than the woodpecker tree. I was sorry I had to leave while this new visitor was still happily flitting from tree top to feeder and back. I was pleased, though, that it stuck around long enough for me to snap a few photos and watch it go about its business.
Other wild birds haven't had the courtesy to stay long enough for me to make a positive ID. Instead they leave me scrambling for the bird book while trying to remember ... Was the color more greenish-yellow or yellowish-green? Were there stripes on the tail or rings around the eyes? Were they 4.75 inches long or more like 5 inches? Did they hop or wag?
Nobody ever said keeping that life list would be easy.
(Diane McCormack is a correspondent for The Brainerd Dispatch and a freelance writer living in north central Minnesota. Comments and story ideas are welcome by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (218) 821-5297.)
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