Red-bellied Woodpeckers are quite common south of Canada (ie: the US) but odd birds have turned up in the Montreal area in the past few years with a small, but reliable, breeding population in Morgan Arboretum just down the road from here. Climate change – who knows? They are at the nothernmost limit of their population hereabouts and are aided in winter by having access to seed-filled feeders. This picture is of one that was in our garden a few years ago and was hacking bark off a tree as you can see – I didn’t gete a picture of the one just spotted. Although it’s hard to discern, there is a red-belly to these birds but it is well hidden when they are against the tree like this, as they usually are, and anyway is quite pale. Such is the way of common names for wildlife. it seems that Red-bellied Woodpeckers have the tendency to nest in clear areas on the margins of forest – edge habitat and use dead trees for their nesting cavities.
Trying to keep as many non-birds on the list as birds at the moment but plants are tricky in the snow. One that stands out just now is the Staghorn Sumac (Vinagrier in Québec). There are a lot of these trees in the top right hand corner of the continent – something that surprised me coming here from Europe as back there they are known to have been a “big mistake” when planted as ornamentals because of their highly invasive roots that get into drains and break up road surfaces and foundations. Here, where they evolved, they seem to be better behaved. Quite attractive trees/shrubs with bright breen leaves that change to a very nice yellow and red in the fall. They bear large, upright clusters of fuzzy red fruits that appear above the branches in late summer on female plants and which are highly appealing to birds throughout the winter.
This week as days lengthen and temperatures rise just a little the Cardinals have started uttering their distinctive spring territorial calls up and down the tree-lined roads and gardens around our home. Although it could be a month before the snow melts and two months before leaves start to appear on the trees, the fact that these colourful birds have started to think spring thoughts is encouraging. When we came to Quebec from the UK back in 1998 the first Canadian bird I was really conscious of appeared on the feeder in our new garden the morning after we moved in. It was a stunning male Cardinal and I was hooked. Females are of a more muted colour range, which causes many people to think they are a different species, but equally delightful. Usually a pair will raise two broods of young each summer – occasionally if conditions are propitious some will raise three through the youngsters of the final nest will have to grow up fast if they are to get through the winter ahead.
Plants of any species are not exactly clamouring to be observed in this deep snow and cold, but we happened upon a dried Golden Rod (Solidago sp.) sticking above the snow with a large gall on the stem. There are three species of insects that form these galls but which can be differentiated by the shape of the gall that results. This one is spherical, known as a ball gall and formed by the Goldenrod Gall Fly, Eurosta solidaginis. The adult insect lays its eggs on the plant in the early part of the year. The larva from the hatched egg then eats its way into the stem and the plant responds by rapidly increasing cell growth around the intrusion, enveloping the larva in a woody protective sheathing that keeps the larva safe, and provides a food supply for the remainder of the summer and a home to overwinter in before emergence in spring as a new adult. The larvae are not entirely safe, however large and hard the gall appears to be – Black-capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers have this food source worked out and can break the galls open to eat the larva inside
To get the challenge rolling properly, and as spring is (if you squint hard) not that far in the future I have taken for the second species of the target 1000, to post the bird everyone hereabouts thinks of as the Herald of Spring even if a few of them do stick with us all winter, usually in loose, roving flocks. Misnamed a Robin by early settlers because of its red breast, it is really a Thrush. Spends a lot of summertime on lawns eating worms but adores berries, a few of which are still to be found even this late in winter, as well as insects. Winter berries are an important food source for Robins so make sure to grow them in your garden
Species #1 – Asclepia syriaca (Common Milkweed) 24 February 2020
My 1000 species challenge starts in earnest on Sunday 1 March. This is a TEST post to get the ducks in a row (and it does not involve a bird).
Common milkweed is the plant everyone loves to plant in their gardens because it is the host plant for the Monarch Butterfly to lay its eggs on – in fact it’s the only plant their caterpillars can feed on. We all know it from its green and growing form with attractive and rather strange flowers but at this time of year hereabouts we can enjoy its beautifully architectural dried seed pods, often with a few seeds still hanging around waiting to be dispersed by the winds.
Now – just another 999 to go. Come back for more on Sunday and then daily thereafter (please).