August 14, 2008

From the Ashes, a Rising Call


Have you ever walked among the smoldering carcasses of burnt trees? Have you walked through the lunar landscape left by a wildfire? It is an eerie experience.

Dust devils of ash whirl across a bleak landscape. The wind whistles through blackened branches; and strong winds are terrifying, because weak, burnt trunks creak from the splintering of falling trees.

Dust and ash irritate your eyes, throat and nose. Blackened tree corpses cover hillslopes like tombstones in a cemetery. Where life once thrived, the pall of death drapes the land.

In nature, all events create winners and losers. When a fire tears through a coniferous forest, many birds, especially the seed- eaters, like crossbills, must desert the scorched landscape to seek food elsewhere. Owls leave too, because the vegetation they require for camouflage is gone.

In contrast, a handful of birds benefit from a wildfire. For example, I commonly observe American kestrels foraging for mice and voles in burnt areas. With little or no vegetation to conceal their movement, small mammals are highly vulnerable to the masterful hunting skills of these small falcons.

Another beneficiary of forest fires is the three-toed woodpecker. This bird deliberately seeks out burnt forests as well as forests stressed by outbreaks of tree-damaging insects. Both types of forests supply an abundance of the tree-dwelling insects, the principal food of the three-toed woodpecker.

The three-toed woodpecker, like the closely-related black-backed woodpecker, is distinguished by feet that have only three toes - two forward-facing and one backward - facing. Other woodpeckers have four toes - two each facing forward and backward.

Reasons for this unusual foot structure are somewhat speculative. Some authorities suggest that the three-toe arrangement provides these woodpeckers with more striking force to debark trees, though perhaps at the expense of some tree-climbing dexterity.

In many aspects, three-toed woodpeckers could pass as hairy woodpeckers. Both species are about the same size - 9 inches long from head to tip of tail. They each wear formal tuxedos of black- and-white with only minor differences in detail. The three-toed woodpecker has a slightly smaller beak than the hairy woodpecker. The three-toed also shows barred flanks and a speckled crown. And the male three-toed sports a yellow cap, which is not observed on the hairy.

Whereas many woodpeckers drill holes in wood to feed on insects or to drink tree sap, the three-toed chips or scales bark off trunks to reach insects. Indeed, large patches of scaled bark is one clue to look for when prospecting for the three-toed woodpecker.

The three-toed woodpecker is regarded as a relatively uncommon bird that is somewhat difficult to find. Part of its apparent elusiveness might be that it nests farther north than any other woodpecker in North America in the sparsely inhabited forests of northern Canada. It also resides in coniferous forests in the Rocky Mountains, generally in sparsely populated areas above 9,000 feet elevation.

But from my limited experience with this species, it might be "difficult" to locate, only because burned and disease-ravaged forests are not the typical destinations of hikers, vacationers and birders. Fortunately for me, these landscapes of distress and disturbance intrigue me.

Earlier in my professional career, I routinely explored the aftermath of wildfires in the Front Range of Colorado, examining the forces of erosion and reconstructing the history of fire. I had many opportunities to observe the three-toed woodpecker in burned forests.

More recently, I have spotted three-toed woodpeckers in the dying lodgepole forests of Colorado. Mountain pine beetles are killing as much as 90 percent of the lodgepole pine in northern Colorado, and three-toed woodpeckers are appearing in large numbers, obviously benefiting from this cycle of disturbance and the influx of abundant food.

In my current position with the U.S. Forest Service, I continue to study the effects of fire on prairie and forest communities. I am completely in awe of wildfire and its effects on plants, animals, soils, and watersheds.

Work, research, and curiosity draw me to so-called "disturbed" landscapes. Though the three-toed woodpecker has never been confirmed in North Dakota, I'm hoping to find the first in our state. Where many people might see grim destruction in a burnt forest, the three-toed woodpecker might be found rising from the ashes.

(Mark Gonzalez is a hydrologist and soil scientist for the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.)

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