One winter, Bob and I took advantage of the lovely ski trails at Oxtongue Lake to explore the woods along the west side of Patterson’s Bay. It is there that we located two pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), a male and a female, working industriously for their breakfast. In this closeup, the bright red pointed crest is really conspicuous.
The trail system commences on the left side of Algonquin Outfitters Road, just past the Algonquin Outfitters store.
A sign has been erected by the Township of Algonquin Highlands detailing the hiking, snowshoeing and ski trails.
For those of you who do not own your own cross-country skis, or snowshoes for that matter, you can rent everything you need at the outfitters store, and then look to ski in the area.
The sign at the outset of the trail system outlines the route for a hike on the Beetle Lake Trail as well as a map of the Blue Spruce Inn ski trails.
The Rookery Trail branches off from the Lookout Trail, although that is not shown on this map. There are maps all along the ski trail that show your current position, and these indicate the Rookery Trail as well as a new extension to it that allows skiers to circle a beaver pond. I was thrilled with the possibility of entering the swamp because two pine martens have recently been sighted there.
Bob and I were on the ski trails by 9 a.m. on that overcast morning, but the temperature was perfect for a dandy ski. At the beaver pond, a good selection of dead trees has created the perfect nesting spot for Great Blue Herons. They will be returning to their rookery soon.
Enormous nests such as this sit atop several of the dead tree trunks. What a lot of work must go into constructing such safe and solid aeries.
Bob and I spent quite a bit of time in the swamp, listening to the dead silence of the forest around us. Somehow it felt like we were in a prehistoric setting with the gigantic bird nests looming over us. Suddenly, punctuating the eerie silence, I heard the distinct pecking of a pileated woodpecker at the near edge of the frozen pond. I recognized the solid, low-pitched tones as the bird’s beak pounded on a tree.
Bob and I ventured carefully off the designated ski trail to the far corner of the pond, pausing periodically to pinpoint the bird’s location. Tucked in behind these evergreen trees was a very tall snag that is obviously a favorite of the woodpecker judging by the number of holes already carved into its surface.
We were very excited when we realized that there was not one, but two pileated woodpeckers working the tree on either side.
While the male woodpecker preferred to remain near the top of the dead tree…perhaps keeping an eye on us,
the female pileated woodpecker retreated to the base of the tree where she was partly hidden by the overhanging branches of an adjacent tree. There was a widespread circle of wood chips covering the fresh snow at the bottom of the snag which suggested that the birds had already been active that morning for a very long time.
Despite our presence, and the startling crunch of the snow as we adjusted our position, the female woodpecker worked persistently at uncovering insects and larvae from the dead wood. The male, on the other hand, had at points flown to alternate trees in the area, but consistently returned to the treetop where we had first spotted them.
In this video that Bob filmed you get a good chance to watch the Pileated Woodpecker go about its business.
Bob and I had sighted two other pileated woodpeckers on a recent ski in Algonquin Park, but they were quite distant from us, so we were grateful to have this closer look at these impressively-sized woodpeckers. They are about equal in size to a crow.
From our vantage point, the woodpecker’s head appeared to disappear into the depths of the hole it was carving out.
Bob and I spent close to an hour observing the two pileated woodpeckers, and even as we turned to leave, they continued to hollow out cavities in the same tree.
Before we left the beaver pond, we just had to snap a few more pictures of the winter landscape. The isolation and absolute silence makes one feel inconsequential as a resident on this planet.
By the time the herons return to this neck of the woods, the snow will have melted from their aeries, providing welcome roosts wherein to nurture their eggs. In the meantime, the woods will echo with the sounds of the pileated woodpeckers as the male hollows out a nest hole in preparation for mating in April, or as they simply go about unearthing tidbits from the layers of wood in the tree.
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