What’s in a name? The Red-headed Woodpecker

On July 9th we headed out to the North, East and West Shoal Lakes to blitz for the Red-headed Woodpecker. Red-headed Woodpeckers were seen by all and a great lunch was eaten afterwards with friends – couldn’t ask for a better day!

We last ran a blitz for Red-headed Woodpeckers in the North, East and West Shoal Lakes IBA in 2020, which was coincidently the first blitz we ran after COVID-19 had started. In 2021 we established Red-headed Woodpecker survey routes, but were unable to run an event to trial them due to COVID once again! The routes were instead trialed by volunteers who went out birding singly or with people from their “bubbles”. This year we finally were able to run the survey routes as intended at Shoal Lakes and they seemed to work quite well. Of course, when we run a bird blitz we record all species that we see, so in addition to photos of the very charismatic Red-headed Woodpecker we also have many other beautiful birds to document in this blog.

As some of you already know the Red-headed Woodpecker is an Endangered species under the federal Species at Risk Act and a Threatened species under our provincial act – which is why we were out to try and gather populations numbers within this IBA. Since the same survey routes were run last year (following the same methods), the intention is to be able to compare numbers between years to see if there is an increase, a decrease, or if they stay the same in this local area.

With the Red-headed Woodpecker survey, volunteers drove along a pre-set 20 km route, stopping in areas of good habitat for this species. Good Red-headed Woodpecker habitat includes open areas with little understory vegetation, with standing dead trees (called snags). Common places for habitat in the Shoal Lakes IBA tends to be woodlots or cattle pastures with a mix of living aspen, and snags. Cattle grazing and/or mowing keeps the understory short. Once beside good habitat volunteers first looked and listened for Red-headed Woodpeckers for two minutes. If nothing was seen they then conducted playback (playing the territorial “querr” or “tchur” call to attract the woodpeckers) for 30 seconds before looking and listening for another two minutes. The coordinates of all Red-headed Woodpeckers seen or heard were recorded. To ensure we were not double counting individuals, we stopped every 300m in good habitat.

An example of good Red-headed Woodpecker habitat. Photo by Amanda Shave.

Group 1 consisted of our fantastic husband and wife duo of Katharine and John Schulz, as well as Al Mickey. Al was one of our Red-headed Woodpecker survey route testers in 2021, so he knew all about our methods. They covered the western side of the Shoal Lakes. Unfortunately, this group was the least successful with the Red-headed Woodpeckers, with one individual spotted. That being said, they still saw a total of 50 species, so the west side of Shoal Lakes was still hopping with birds! Of particular note was a group of eight Great Egrets that were spotted roosting in a tree. While we often see egrets and herons foraging in wetlands and waterbodies, they actually nest and roost in trees. So next time you are on the lookout for this group of birds, perhaps look up! They also recorded two Barn Swallows, another Species at Risk.

Great Egret in a tree. Photo by Katharine Schulz.
Common Goldeye with young. Photo by Katharine Schulz.

Group 2 consisted of Nelson, Jody and Paul and they covered the Red-headed Woodpecker route at the south end of the Shoal Lakes IBA. This group observed two pairs of Red-headed Woodpeckers (four individuals total) during their survey. For other Species at Risk, this group also counted four Barn Swallows. Not to be left behind on Group 1’s Great Egret sightings, Group 2 had 17 Great Egrets – the North, East and West Shoal Lakes is a “great” place to spot them! Group 2 also recorded a Great-crested Flycatcher, a couple of Brown Thrashers and an Orchard Oriole, all species less commonly reported birds for this IBA. This was also the first IBA blitz for all three group members, so a big welcome to all three and I am glad they had such a great variety of sightings.

Male Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Katharine Schulz.

Group 3 consisted of Garry Budyk and Rudolf Koes. They had specifically asked to be in the northwest corner of the IBA – their traditional Shoal Lakes blitz area! Garry and Rudolf saw five Red-headed Woodpeckers on their official survey route and three woodpeckers outside of their survey route (but still in their assigned blitz area). Two of the woodpeckers were drumming (usually a territorial behaviour) one woodpecker was carrying food – mostly likely to bring back to the nest for the next generation of Red-headed Woodpeckers, and another two were seen using a cavity.

Red-headed Woodpecker on a fence post (the post was a tree in it’s former life, right?) Photo by Garry Budyk.

Garry and Rudolf saw a number of other bird species of course including a variety of waterfowl (Green-wing Teal, Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Ruddy Duck). They also saw several species of grebes including the Pie-billed Grebe, Red-necked Grebe and Western Grebe. Grebes were not our focus on this blitz, but we have conducted blitzes for Western Grebes at the Shoal Lakes IBA in the past. A few other Species at Risk were also noted including 11 Barn Swallows, two Bobolink, and a Least Bittern. Other notable species included one Brown Thrasher, one Chestnut-sided Warbler, two Nelson’s Sparrows, three Great-Crested Flycatchers and 48 Black Terns.

Least Bittern peeking out from the reeds. Photo by Rudolf Koes.
Young grebe. Photo by Garry Budyk.

Finally we have Group 4, which birded along the east side of the Shoal Lakes. This group consisted of myself (Amanda) and three new birders to the IBA Program, Amrita, Sukh and Karen. It was their first time out for an IBA event, so a big welcome to Amrita, Sukh and Karen as well! During out Red-headed Woodpecker survey we had two sets of pairs seen. One pair was tracked down heading into a nest cavity. With the frequency of entries and exits it seemed like the pair was feeding young.

Parental exchange between a pair of nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers. The active cavity can be seen on the same tree as the perching individual. Photo by Amanda Shave.

While transiting from one area of good woodpecker habitat to the next, we passed between the Shoal Lakes on Provincial Road 415. Here we came across several species of marsh birds including a cluster of approximately 56 Forster’s Terns all foraging in the same wetland pond area, three Great Egrets, and a variety of waterfowl such as Blue-winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal, Ruddy Ducks, Red-necked Grebes, Western Grebes and more. Nearby a wet meadow our driving also alerted a pair of Marbled Godwit and Killdeer who were probably nesting in the area based on their behaviour. In the same area we also recorded a male Bobolink sitting on the powerlines.

Forster’s Tern taking a break from foraging. Photo by Amanda Shave.

After finishing our Red-headed Woodpecker route, we had a bit of time before we needed to meet up for lunch, and we were able to get two more pairs of Red-headed Woodpeckers outside of our formal survey area. Group 4 had a total of nine Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Another former-tree providing perching habitat for one half of a Red-headed Woodpecker pair. Photo by Amanda Shave.

At noon we all met in Inwood for lunch at Rosie’s Cafe and a debrief! It was a busy morning with a total of 23 Red-headed Woodpeckers seen! This exceeds the IBA threshold of 14 Red-headed Woodpeckers (1% of the Canada-wide population for this species) once again this year. The high concentration of Red-headed Woodpeckers in this IBA continues to indicate the important habitat that exists in this area of the province for this Endangered Species. In total we saw 2552 individual birds, made of of 103 species. Thank you to all of the volunteers who came out to blitz the North, East and West Shoal Lakes!

American Bittern4
American Coot14
American Crow30
American Goldfinch 26
American Kestrel22
American Redstart 4
American Robin19
American White Pelican 10
American Wigeon2
Bald Eagle5
Baltimore Oriole11
Barn Swallow9
Barn Swallow11
Black Tern109
Black-and-white Warbler1
Black-billed Magpie 19
Black-capped Chickadee3
Black-crowned Night-Heron1
Blue Jay2
Blue-winged Teal22
Bobolink 6
Brewer’s Blackbird15
Broad-winged Hawk1
Brown Thrasher 4
Brown-headed Cowbird46
Canada Goose 5
Cedar Waxwing8
Chestnut-sided Warbler1
Chipping Sparrow3
Clay-colored Sparrow89
Common Goldeneye1
Common Grackle 76
Common Raven 19
Common Yellowthroat 107
Cooper’s Hawk1
Double-crested Cormorant 1
Downey Woodpecker1
Eastern Kingbird30
European Starling40
Forster’s Tern67
Franklin’s Gull51
Gadwall 11
Gray Catbird17
Great Blue Heron5
Great Crested Flycatcher 4
Great Egret 44
Greater Yellowlegs 2
Green-winged Teal64
Hooded Merganser2
House Sparrow5
House Wren61
Least Bittern2
Least Flycatcher52
LeConte’s Sparrow1
Lesser Scaup1
Lesser Yellowlegs1
Marbled Godwit4
Marsh Wren44
Mourning Dove41
Nelson’s Sparrow2
Northern Flicker13
Northern Harrier4
Northern Pintail10
Northern Shoveler62
Orchard Oriole2
Pied-billed Grebe11
Pileated Woodpecker1
Purple Martin1
Red-eyed Vireo26
Red-headed Woodpecker23
Red-necked Grebe3
Red-tailed Hawk7
Red-winged Blackbird327
Ring-billed Gull8
Ring-necked Duck15
Rose-breasted Grosbeak2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird1
Ruddy Duck5
Sandhill Crane10
Savannah Sparrow54
Sedge Wren29
Sharp-tailed Grouse5
Song Sparrow64
Swamp Sparrow10
Tree Swallow24
Turkey Vulture4
Warbling Vireo33
Western Grebe8
Western Meadowlark106
White-throated Sparrow1
Wilson’s Snipe52
Woodpecker sp.1
Yellow Warbler80
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker3
Yellow-headed Blackbird134
Yellow-throated Vireo3
Total Individuals2552
Total Species Identified103