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The Nature of PEI
by Gary Schneider

Downy woodpecker (photo: fiep de bie)Winter on Prince Edward Island can present some challenges if you don’t enjoy cold temperatures, dislike shovelling, or need to drive on snow-clogged roads. Sometimes you just feel like huddling indoors and staying warm. But not always.

Recently, Nature PEI sponsored a bird walk in Charlottetown on a blustery day that featured plenty of cold feet and red cheeks. But with help of trip leader Brendan Kelly, participants got to see a kingfisher, wigeons, and many other common and rare bird species. Brendan even made sure that the feeders he maintains along the trail near Charlottetown Rural High School were full. Now that’s dedication.

The highlight of the tour for me was a very common bird in a somewhat uncommon situation. It was a male downy woodpecker, our smallest member of this family. On this frigid day, it was in a nesting cavity in a small, dead white birch. These holes are mainly used during the breeding season, providing a safe space to lay eggs and hatch young. But at this time of year, many birds use the cavities for both warmth and protection. It must be a bit like finding a cave during a storm. Once out of the wind, the body heat in a relatively enclosed area helps ward off the winter.  Black capped chickadees even go a step further, grouping together to provide an even greater heat source.

The downy woodpecker was just sticking enough of its head out of the hole to keep an eye on the group of birders. And it also was another example of why wildlife trees are so important in both our forested and urban landscapes.

The prevailing attitudes towards nature tend to favour neatness. Extensive lawns are just one example.  I once walked in the woods with a property owner who was pushing over small dead trees, thinking he was doing something good for the forest. He did not know that even small standing dead trees can be important habitat for birds such as chickadees and nuthatches.

Most of us have lots to learn about living together with wildlife. We let our own associations of cleanliness being next to godliness frame our view of landscapes. One landowner I worked for was very excited about having so many chickadees and nuthatches around. In almost he next breath he was wanting me to remove the dead trees where these birds were feeding and nesting in. Again, once he learned how important they were, he started valuing the dead trees as well as the birds. They so often go hand in hand.

When you see a pileated woodpecker feeding on ants in a tree, or a common goldeneye flying out of a cavity, or a flying squirrel sticking its head out of a hole, then you begin to understand the connectivity between animals and habitat. Death in a forest is a natural condition. Those dead trees provide essential habitat for feeding, nesting and perching birds, and go on to become nutrients, water-absorbing sponges, and stored carbon. We don’t want to see too many trees dying, or cut for that matter, but a certain number of dead trees is vitally important in a healthy forest. And even in an urban landscape.

Thanks again to Brendan for providing a great excuse to get outside and learn about nature. On February 10th, he’ll lead a Winter Waterfowl Identification trip, meeting up at 8 am at the corner of the Grand Pere Point Road near the Lobster Shack in Cymbria. Enjoy your winter.

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