Woodpeckers of the Winter Woods

One of the best things about winter walks in Altona Forest is being able to see woodpeckers clearly and frequently. They are often found busily tapping for insects or their larvae and will generally ignore you watching them or aiming a camera in their direction.

Have you seen woodpeckers in Altona Forest? From mid-January to late-March is a great time to wander the forest observing them. It’s always exciting to happen upon the large almost prehistoric looking pileated woodpecker!

What makes a woodpecker a woodpecker? Why is a nuthatch was not part of this family? Both are insect eaters tapping tree bark in search of food. Woodpeckers, flickers and sapsuckers are often grouped together – with their sturdy pointed beaks built for chiseling wood, their clawed feet for gripping tree trunks, their stiff tails for balance and leverage, and short strong legs for their typical movement upwards on a tree. Nuthatches are classified as song birds and move both up and down trees – similar diet but their body morphology apparently differs.

There are three common woodpeckers in Altona Forest: the downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers. The first two are hard to tell apart – it will require seeing them a number of  times and learning to recognize their sizes and beak shapes. The markings are remarkably similiar with males of both downy and hairy similarly marked with a red patch on the backs of their heads (the females of both species don’t have the red). The hairy is larger with a longer beak – nearly as long as it’s head. Don’t stress this ID; it’s advanced birding and becomes easier when you’re seeing them on a regular basis.

Luckily, matching the name to the woodpecker is easy with this mnemonic: size of bird increases alphabetically. Downy is the smallest, Hairy  is mid-sized and Pileated is large.



Downy woodpecker near Altona Forest’s south ponds. Bad example since the beak looks very long in this photo – but good because you can see the comparative size of the bird to the sumac



Hairy woodpecker in Altona Forest’s cedar grove



Pileated woodpecker in Altona Forest (near Lacey’s Pond). I was so excited to see her low on the tree, that I dropped my camera in the snow

Winter woodpecker spotting is easy; walk along and pause periodically and listen for the taps against the tree bark. Follow the sounds with your eyes or camera – woodpeckers tend to be engrossed in their work. With the leaves gone, you have much better sight-lines. A second way to spot them is to look below trees as you walk – you may see wood chips below a tree indicating that there are woodpeckers in the area. Don’t miss the opportunity to examine the holes they make.

While woodpeckers can be seen in many areas along the trails, the north ‘blue’ loop of trail between posts 16 and 23 is a hot-spot. Another spot is the viewing platform at the amphibian pond near post 30. These areas are particularly hard hit by the foreign invasive emerald ash borer and many trees are infected and dying. This means that insects of all sorts are moving into these trees – providing a feast for woodpeckers. What is tragic for the forest is a boon for woodpecker populations.

In winter, those who put out suet might be rewarded with periodic feeder-visits by both downy and hairy woodpeckers.

These are the woodpeckers you will see most frequently but it’s possible to see others in Altona Forest. It’s very rare but I’ve seen and photographed a yellow bellied sap sucker, a red bellied woodpecker and more commonly (especially in the south ponds area) northern flickers. My photos are blurry at best – but there’s no mistaking who they are.

As I wander Altona’s snowy paths in winter, I’m reminded that the symbol used on the newsletters and TRCA titles for Altona Forest is a woodpecker. An apt choice of icon for these woods. See you (and them!) on the trails.


The only woodpecker above I haven’t seen in Altona Forest is the red-headed                                                                       Amsel, Sheri. “Animal Signs – Woodpeckers” copyrighted from exploringnature.org found on Pinterest

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Downy or Hairy? (A tough question)

D is for Downy (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

H is for Hairy (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

P is for Pileated (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Woodpeckers of the Winter Woods ~ © 2017 Natasha G






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