The road has a rather inauspicious name. From what I can see of it from the highway it doesn’t look that promising, either. The gravel cuts through the jack pine barrens typical of the area, the dry sandy soil capable of supporting only low bush blueberry, bracken fern, and reindeer lichen. But drive half a mile down Hiawatha National Forest’s Road 3344 and the landscape changes dramatically. The ground level suddenly drops a few feet and extensive bogs flank the road on either side, with Club-spur Orchis, Marsh Cinquefoil, and Northern Pitcher Plant crowding the roadside ditches.
The birdlife changes just as dramatically. In contrast to the Song Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds which are practically the only birds in the barrens, the edge of the bog harbors Canada Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Alder Flycatcher, and Connecticut Warbler, among others. I get out of the car and crouch on the side of the road. I hear a sound overhead which I had the opportunity to become familiar with last winter. It’s the “tchet tchet tchet” of a flock of White-winged Crossbills flying over. Just seconds later, I hear a similar sound coming from the treetops: I’m not as familiar with this sound, but I still recognize it as the deeper, slower “thyuk thyuk thyuk” of a feeding group of Red Crossbills! In minutes, a Lincoln’s Sparrow comes within arm’s reach. Lincoln’s is my favorite of the Emberizidae. When non-birders think of sparrows, they probably do not envision a bird with a striking white eyering, beautiful buff breast and flanks, deep maroon crown, silvery supercilium, and a resounding, luxurious song. I guess I’m lucky to notice it!
Walking the roadside deeper into the bog, I spot an intriguing flycatcher perched on the pinnacle of a large dead tamarack. With a pale eye ring and two striking white wing bars, it’s definitely an Empid. One loud “pish” draws in a whole menagerie of curious songbirds, including the flycatcher. I have a good enough look to see several field marks that make it my favorite Empid, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Among the Midwest’s Empids, Yellow-bellied is decidedly the most distinctive, with its striking orange-and-black bill, raindrop-shaped eye ring, bright greenish back and of course the namesake yellow belly. The species’ habit of living in the most remote and inaccessible boreal bogs really gives it charisma, and seeing one from a roadside is exhilarating.
The Yellow-bellied takes off, and to my surprise a much larger flycatcher immediately takes its place! As it flies in, it belts out the “quick-THREE-BEERS” song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher. “Pishing” does nothing to draw this bird in, but a look at it through binoculars reveals a very muscular, crested bird with a striking black bib, looking like a boss on its lofty perch. He slowly raises and lowers his crest several times, as if to make sure that he holds my undivided attention. After singing once more, he flies off to another corner of the bog, defending his territory against any unwelcome bird foolish enough to challenge his rule.
This can’t get any better! Well, apparently it can, because when I get my binoculars on a pair of woodpeckers hitching up a dead snag, I notice their muscular profiles and completely black upper parts. I see that one of them has a yellow “forehead”—I’m looking at a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers! They fly away too quickly for me to get a really good look, but a couple of minutes later a peculiar, resonant “chek!” 100 meters to my right allows me to relocate the male, who is spiraling up a dying tamarack nearly out of sight. Moments later the female, who had been feeding on the opposite side of a nearby tree trunk, appears a few yards from me. She lets loose with a bizarre “KYAH-kikikikiki!” and the male immediately takes flight and alights on a tree close to her left.
I don’t exactly understand what just happened but I’m glad it did, for now both of the woodpeckers are actively feeding and interacting within ten feet of me! They appear equal in length to a Hairy Woodpecker, but are altogether more impressive. More muscular than a Hairy, they have angular profiles and a fiercer expression. As they forage they tear off chunks of bark, flinging them to the ground several feet below.
The male, seemingly curious, approaches even closer, taking me in with his dark brown eye. The color of his forehead patch belongs in Fort Knox! He is close enough that I can see he has three, instead of four, toes on each foot. His stiff tail is bordered in white and his glossy black feathers reflect a bluish sheen as he moves in and out of the dappled sunlight. A black moustachial stripe begins at the gray base of a sturdy bill that turns black towards the tip. His immaculate white throat and undersides are complemented by flanks barred black and white. Behind his eye is a thin white line, tapering where the ear lies beneath the feathers. White dots on his primaries are arranged to form several slanting lines, which end abruptly at the secondary feathers.
I’m entranced by my close encounter with this woodpecker, one of the most transient of the North Woods’ inhabitants. After a long time of unconcernedly allowing me to witness him in his secret world, he flies away, and I finally release my breath.