Wilderness forests serve as havens to many species of wildlife, especially those attracted to stands of old, dying and dead trees. While some people view areas of rotting timber as a breeding ground for tree disease and destructive, wood-boring insects, as well as a source of fuel for fire during periods of exceptionally dry weather, other individuals note that such sites create favorable conditions for many unique forms of life.
Among those creatures attracted to places cluttered with recently fallen logs, where frequent stands of damaged, dying and partially rotted timber jut through a broken canopy, is the black-backed woodpecker. This hardy bird is a year-round resident of the Park, inhabiting areas where old, sick, weakened and dead trees, especially conifers, abound.
The black-backed woodpecker, as its name implies, has a back that is solid black in color. It also is characterized by a row of black and white bars running down its side, and a conspicuous yellow patch on the very top of the male’s head. Additionally, this bird is the same size and has nearly the exact same profile as that of its close relative, the hairy woodpecker. While both birds have a bill similar in length and shape, the bill of the black-backed woodpecker is slightly thicker. This allows the black-back to more effectively excavate deeper holes in wood in its search for invertebrates.
While all woodpeckers eat almost any type of insect, spider or bug encountered while chipping and chiseling away at a section of tree, the black-backed woodpecker prefers to target the larvae and pupa of long-horned beetles, especially those of the Northeastern pine sawyer, during these colder months of the year. The long-horned beetles are a group of sizeable wood-boring insects adapted for chewing into softer woods, like pine, in an attempt to find refuge from the winter elements, as well as escape from predators. Because these insects are not as well adapted for drilling into pieces of dense wood, places that contain softwoods, or sections of a tree that have started to decay, are the sites sought by these invertebrates.
In the Adirondacks, stands of damaged and dead trees commonly occur, especially throughout wilderness areas. Lowlands recently flooded by beaver activity often have small patches of dead trees in which root systems have become permanently immersed in water. Hillsides and lowland flats prone to the strong winds associated with the deep low pressure systems that periodically move across the region, or which may regularly be in the path of severe summer thunderstorms, support numerous toppled or snapped trees. Similarly, ice storms can also wreak havoc on healthy woodlands. Such weather events produce scattered clusters of fallen tree tops, and large stubs that jut high above the forest floor which eventually die and become highly attractive to various wood-boring bugs, like the long-horned beetles and, in turn, luring the black-backed woodpecker to these locations.
In more northern forests, fire is another common element that can devastate a forest and create conditions favorable to bugs that live in dead wood and this species of woodpecker. In the Adirondacks, however, frequent periods of rain during the warmer months of the year help to suppress the outbreak of fires. Anyone that hikes in the Park knows that there are plenty of patches of dead timber large enough to support this shy woodpecker and virtually all have been created by weather events or beaver activity, rather than fire.
In nature, however, nothing lasts forever. Change is always occurring, and a forest that has been devastated by one catastrophe, or another, eventually heals as young, healthy trees replace the old, damaged and dead ones, and the action of decay eliminates the remains of the entities that have perished. Like other creatures that live in disturbed sites, the black-backed woodpecker will abandon an area that no longer provides it with adequate food, in order to search for a newly formed break in the canopy that offers an expanding supply of the bugs that it prefers to eat.
For some people, a forest containing numerous stands of sick, damaged and dead trees is an unhealthy woodland in need of some serious selective cutting. Large, recently fallen logs left to rot on the forest floor represent a waste of a precious natural resource, as opposed to serving as a source of food and shelter to wood-boring insects. However, wilderness forests, with all their components, are places where many unique forms of wildlife reside, even during these exceptionally cold months. A snowshoe excursion, or a ski trip through a seemingly devastated stretch of conifers may periodically reveal one such creature with a black back, barred sides, and a pointed bill that it may be using to chip away at one of these injured trees.
Photos: Above, a male Black-backed Woodpecker at Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, Brunswick, Vermont (US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region); and below, a female Black-backed Woodpecker in Quebec, Canada (courtesy Wikimedia user Cephas).