Birdman of Lauderdale

Winter birds of Breck Woods 

By Clay Christensen

Breck Woods is in the Lauderdale Nature Area, near the western edge of the village, just south of Larpenteur Avenue.

The Woods are in the news because Luther Seminary is proposing to sell them along with some other campus property to a developer. In mid-January, I spent some time touring the area with my birding buddy, Ellen, and her dog, Apollo. 

I wanted to see what birds were using the territory this time of the year and whether the habitat looked “birdy.” Were there nesting sites?

The day I visited the Woods, the temperature hovered in the low teens with the sun shining but no wind. The trails were quite icy. 

In some parts of the woods, there were deadfalls, some across the trail. Climbing over the fallen trunks was tricky with ice under foot and coating some of the logs.

There were many standing snags, dead trees that are still vertical. And some of these had numerous holes drilled in them by woodpeckers. With three or four holes in one limb, it looked like a woodpecker condo.

Many species of birds

We saw or heard 10 species of birds in the hour we spent in Breck Woods.

The first bird we heard wasn’t vocalizing; it was making a deep, resonant thumping sound, whacking away at a tree. It sounded like a pileated woodpecker, but we couldn’t spot it. Then, suddenly, we saw a bird come around from behind the trunk of a tree about 50 feet away.  It was indeed a pileated woodpecker, and it was working quite low on the trunk. 

Breck Woods, with all its standing snags, is good habitat for woodpeckers and other cavity nesters. It’s probable that the pileated woodpeckers have a nest cavity in the woods. We saw a hairy woodpecker and heard a red-bellied woodpecker while we were there. I’m sure there are downy woodpeckers, but we didn’t happen to see any. Each of those species would also nest in cavities.

There were also a lot of black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches searching for spider eggs and wintering larvae along the trunks and branches. These two species are cavity nesters, too.

We saw a robin that was spending the winter in the area. Brave soul. It’s avoiding the hazards of migration is but taking a chance on a Minnesota winter. There must be some berries around because the worms aren’t very accessible.

There’s a wetland down in the hollow in the northeast corner of the property. I saw a goldfinch checking out the seed tops of the reeds in the wetland. Young saplings surround the wetland area. They’d be good locations for goldfinch and warbler nests in the summer.

I talked with my friend, Jeff Dains, about birding in Breck Woods. Jeff is a Lauderdale City  Council city council member and an avid bird watcher. He praises Breck Woods highly, having seen spring and summer nesting evidence. Here are some of the birds that Jeff has seen nesting, and where and how they usually build their nests:

Indigo buntings are great vocalists. They are a deep indigo blue when they’re perched in the sunlight. Otherwise, they look black. Their nests are placed in the crotch of a bush, shrub, or low tree, or in a tangle of blackberries, two to 12 feet above the ground.

Red-eyed vireos sing almost constantly. Their song sounds like a question and an answer. They make a deep-cupped hanging structure suspended in horizontal fork of a slender tree branch (often a sapling), usually five to 10 feet above the ground.

Great crested flycatchers are cavity nesters, often five to 10 feet above the ground. They announce their presence with a loud “wheep.”

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are sometimes described as sounding like a robin that’s had voice lessons. They nest in the fork of a deciduous tree or shrub, usually 10 to 15 feet above the ground.

Cooper’s hawks are accipiters. They prey on other birds and small mammals. They build their nest in the upright crotch of a deciduous tree or next to the trunk on the horizontal limbs of a conifer, often a white pine, from 20 to 60 feet above the ground.

Great horned owls are like the Mafioso of the woodlands. They don’t build a nest; they take over the nest of another large bird, like a red-tailed hawk or crow. Usually it’s an old nest, but it could be an active one. Sometimes they’ll commandeer a squirrel’s nest. They also nest in natural tree cavities.

Those were the birds that Jeff mentioned that he had seen nesting in Breck Woods.

The last bird Ellen and I saw on our afternoon excursion was a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree. It was very puffed up because of the cold.

Breck Woods is used by birds in all seasons. If we lose these Woods, many birds will lose the habitat they need for nest sites, and many migrating birds will lose a valued rest stop.

Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book “The Birdman of Lauderdale” is available in metro area Half Price Books stores.

Photo: DSCF2528.jpeg. Credit: Ellen Lowery. Cutline: Red-tailed Hawk

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