Talking Nature: Opportunity to spot rare woodpecker in East Bethel

By Ron Taube
Contributing Writer

For several years I’ve been going to Fish Lake in East Bethel to look for a woodpecker that is very beautiful but relatively rare: the red-headed woodpecker.

Fish Lake, I soon learned, was known as one of the best spots to see them in the state. It is adjacent to and part of the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, which is part of the University of Minnesota agricultural department.

This Cedar Creek research area is composed of 5,400 acres of native upland forests and prairie and lowland swamps and meadows. It contains over 900 plots of experimental gardens. Except for the Fish Lake area, which is in the eastern part of the reserve, the area is off limits to the general public except in rare instances when they have a public tour.

On June 27, they held such a tour, and my wife and I and a friend decided to attend. We met in the Fish Lake parki

A red-headed woodpecker, sporting a band, is on a dead tree. Photo by Ron Taube
A red-headed woodpecker, sporting a band, is on a dead tree. Photo by Ron Taube

ng area and our guide, Jim Howitz, was very knowledgeable about everything to do with Cedar Creek and red-headed woodpeckers. There were about 15 people who participated in the hike, and they all knew about the red-headed woodpeckers that are common to the area. Jim told us that last year there were 55 nesting pairs of red-headed woodpeckers and that this year they had only found 35 so far.

As we hiked heading west toward Fish Lake, we crossed a prairie where we saw a number of eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and eastern kingbirds. When we reached the lake, we headed south and soon saw our first red-headed woodpeckers at the top of a dead tree stump. The beautiful all-red head and pointed beak atop a black back with white stripes on the wings makes for a most distinctive bird. They are known to some as flag birds because their red head stands out like a flag.

We learned that there was a system at Cedar Creek for identifying trees with red-headed woodpeckers in them. They put a yellow band around a tree that looked like it might be a nesting tree and then added a red band when they were certain of the nest. We soon saw a double-banded tree, and though we saw some brief landings of red-headed woodpeckers, we didn’t see any go in. It may have been because our large group frightened them off.

Later along the trail, however, we did see red-headed woodpeckers going in and out of possible nesting holes.

One of the reasons why the red-headed woodpecker’s numbers are in decline is the fact that they love dead trees, and many parks and yards remove dead trees and use them for firewood. If you want to help preserve this beautiful bird, leave a few dead trees on your property. The female red-headed woodpecker lays four to seven eggs in a tree 5-80 feet above ground and incubation lasts about 14 days. The young leave the nest about 30 days later.

Our guide said that he knew of several hatched chicks in the area, but they would be too young to be visible from the ground at this time.

Red-headed woodpeckers nests were not all that we saw. We also saw several orchard oriole nests and even a newly fledged young orchard oriole that looked like a yellow puff ball in the green tree. It was a fun two-hour hike.

If you get a chance check out Fish Lake in East Bethel, it is open to the public. It is east of Coopers Corner at 237th Street and Highway 65, then go right at the T and go down to 229th, then left at Durant. Also check out Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve at www.cedarcreek.umn.edu.