By Ine Dorresteijn
About three weeks ago, Cathy and me joined Tibi and Arpi on the wood-pasture project in Transylvania. We had an almost perfect plan ready: We would fly to Sigishoara at the end of February so we could start the woodpecker surveys in the beginning of March. Under normal circumstances woodpeckers do what they are good at around that time: drumming on trees and making a lot of noise while setting up their territories. However, this year had to be one of Romania’s coldest and we basically found our study area snowed in. First of all, after working for 6 years in the Arctic areas, I was so happy to find a project in Romania, and I thought I was done with doing fieldwork in the snow and cold. This illusion lasted only for a short while. Secondly, our beautiful plan to run from site to site in the morning to listen for woodpeckers and run from site to site in the afternoon to measure trees turned out to be the second illusion that didn’t last very long.
Due to the freezing temperatures the woodpeckers remained silent and thus we could not yet start the surveys. This was not necessarily a bad thing as we could just continue part two of our master plan and run from site to site to measure trees. However, even this part of the plan proved to be a big challenge. The deep snow certainly prevented us from running between the sites. After a long sweaty hike uphill in sometimes knee deep snow we could finally start to measure trees. The actual measuring doesn’t take that long and we often finished within the hour after which we could make our crawl back to the car. There we could spend another half an hour digging and pushing the car (which also did not prepare its tires for winter conditions) out of the snow before moving on towards the next site.
However, even the snow could not ruin the fun for us. It gave us many nice moments and makes for example for excellent material for baseball. Additionally, it was quite exciting to see the presence of the bears, through footprints in the snow, in many of our study sites (some even appeared to be closer than you think). And nothing is better than being outside together with Kuno and his homemade ‘hot tea’ to keep us warm and Cathy with homemade cake to keep us fed :).
But, back to the story of the woodpeckers. In the meantime the temperatures have risen a bit and the birds become more active. We started the woodpecker surveys and by now have finished one round of surveys. The idea is to compare woodpecker diversity between wood-pastures and forest sites and to determine whether wood-pastures are important habitat for woodpeckers. Even though the peak of woodpecker activity is just starting, we found many species in the wood-pastures. These include the Dryocopus martius, Dendrocopos medius and Picus canus, each of which are protected under the EU bird directive Annex I. So far we have observed more species of woodpeckers in the wood-pastures compared to the forest. This can partly be explained by the snow that is still high in the forests and the temperatures might be a bit lower. Nevertheless, it seems that the wood-pastures with its big oak trees appear to be important feeding habitat for the woodpeckers. Signs of feeding are evident in almost all wood-pastures and, as Arpi likes to say, these wood-pastures are like supermarkets for woodpeckers. This is not too surprising as woodpeckers are demanding birds that depend on both big and old trees as well as on dead wood. Nevertheless, these results can be critical to promote the maintenance of the wood-pastures in Eastern Europe. Woodpeckers are keystone species in the forests. Their activity provides habitat for secondary hole nesters and thereby they help to keep bird diversity rich in the landscape. I am curious what will happen in the next weeks when their activity will peak and hope that with this addition to our Romania project we can help to keep these magnificent wood-pastures alive!