Steve Lekwa: Reservations not needed for this woodland condo

Steve Lekwa
Ames Tribune

We recently returned from a trip to Pennsylvania to see our kids and their families. We stayed in a rented condo that was part of a resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. The people who owned the condo rent it out when they’re not using it. It was a long drive but worth every minute. We had delightful mountain weather and a wonderful time playing with our grandkids.

The various neighborhoods and recreation facilities of the area were established in the midst of classic Eastern hardwood forest. It appeared similar to hardwood forest in eastern Iowa at a casual glance, but closer inspection revealed many differences.

The trees tended to be taller and straighter since they were growing close together on slopes and all competing for light. There were oaks, but a different mix of species including white, northern red, black, chestnut and a few others. There were maples, but our local black maples were replaced by sugar maples. Our silver maples were replaced by red, mountain and striped maples.

A few yellow and black birch, beech, tulip, magnolia and sassafras trees added interest, as did a scattering of Eastern white pines and Eastern hemlocks. Shrubs included dogwood, like here, but there were also alders and blueberries. Huge ferns grew under it all.

A dead tree trunk stood not far from the condo where we stayed. It was, in some ways, similar to the human neighborhood in that it provided homes or a temporary place to stay for a variety of residents. Of particular interest was a medium-sized woodpecker hole about 15 feet up. The hole was too big for a downy woodpecker and not big enough for a pileated to have made it. It was, no doubt, excavated by a medium-sized woodpecker, probably a hairy or red-bellied.

The hole may have been made earlier this year or even a couple of years ago. Woodpeckers excavate new cavities each year for their nests but add no extra nesting material. Woodpeckers or other birds (not necessarily the original builder) may continue to use the cavity as a night roost, especially in winter. The rest of the time, like the condo we stayed in, the cavity is available for others to use.

We saw a great-crested flycatcher emerge from the hole one morning. These talkative Eastern woodland birds nest in cavities. They depend on woodpeckers for their nest sites but will also use nest boxes. If the cavity was excavated earlier this spring, the woodpeckers had already had time to raise their family. The flycatchers would be the second occupants but certainly not the last.

If the cavity was made last year or earlier, it’s possible that chickadees might have raised a family this spring before the flycatchers took over. Chickadees nest early and don’t add much to the cavity with their little nests of green moss and rabbit fur.

It’s likely that the flycatchers were still laying a clutch of eggs or incubating them. There wasn’t as much activity at the nest site as there would have been if they were feeding young.

There is still plenty of time this summer for them to complete raising their brood of young and leave the nest cavity available for the next occupant.

Who might that be? Another woodpecker might move in to use it as a night roost. Although it’s a bit high for a house wren, it wouldn’t surprise me if wrens are the next renters. There’s plenty of time for a pair of them raise another large brood since they continue nesting well into August.

In a way, if would be unfortunate if wrens move in. They’d fill the nest cavity with twigs, making it less usable for other renters. Even wren twigs might not prevent deer mice or an Eastern flying squirrel from remodeling the old cavity into a snug winter home.

That dead tree trunk is a little like a new subdivision just opened for development. There is only one active home at present, but there’s room for quite a few more. As long as the trunk is still standing, the builders (woodpeckers) are likely to continue building new homes there. They won’t sit empty for long.