Back to Nature (Published on - Dec. 22, 2005)
Tangerines and woodpeckers
Photo by Rick Tremmel
Rain drenched breakfast … cold, juicy tangerines hang in bunches ready for the picking.
I heard the morning paper hit the end of the driveway with a slap as the aged, tied-on-muffler of a car crept down the empty street. As it stopped at each house, it idled in a rumble of metal clanking and belts slipping and squealing.

Although the sun hadn’t revealed itself on the horizon yet, I put the kettle on, started to run a bath and flicked on the power for my computer. In what seemed like minutes to my sluggish mind, the kettle was announcing that its job was done and tea would be ready soon. The sun was barely breaking through the leaves and dappling shadowy light upon the kitchen table. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes.

“I’d really like a fresh tangerine, Hon. Do we have any in the frig?” my husband inquired.

After checking the refrigerator I realized that the only tangerines available were growing on the trees outside. This ought to wake me up, I contemplated with a smile.

The morning air was fresh and cool. Patches of fog lay close to the ground. A mockingbird was singing her heart out atop the lamp post while male and female cardinals played on the feeder. I took a deep breath, reflecting, this is why we live in Florida, for here it is the middle of December, and I’m picking tropical fruit. Any place north of here is presumably covered deep in snow drifts with roads sheer ice.

The juicy tangerines hung in heavy clumps dripping from the previous night’s heavy rain. As I approached the tree, I noticed a quick movement among the leaves, and then came a loud drumming sound against one of the limbs. A woodpecker, I thought, what a delight.

On closer inspection I could see a small black and white bird of about 6 inches with a bright red patch at his crown, a downy woodpecker. Although similar, the downy woodpecker can be readily distinguished from the hairy woodpecker by its size which is approximately 9 inches in length, and the Hairy Woodpecker has a much larger bill.

The tiny downy woodpecker is a year-round resident of Florida and is common throughout most of North America. They’re often attracted and can be observed visiting suet feeders. The male and female appear similar except for the small red patch at the back of the male’s head.

The breast of this woodpecker is white. The crown is black, with the addition of a small red patch on the male, with a white line just above the eye. Underneath the eye is another black line that runs to the back of the head. Their white cheeks are separated by a thinner black line that runs from the edge of the bill almost to the back of the neck. The white patch on their backs is quiet visible even from a distance. The wings of the downy woodpecker remind me of black and white finely checked cloth.

In Florida, both woodpeckers are often seen in fruit trees excavating bark, soft wood and holes in search for insects. They will often make their nests in the soft wood of old, abandoned fruit trees. One of the most charming traits of this woodpecker is its lack of fear of humans. If you’re fortunate enough to have an attractive habitat to offer to this woodpecker you’ll be able to observe them at close range without the need for binoculars, delighting in the antics of the Downy Woodpecker as it searches for dinner upside-down.

Florida residents should watch for them especially at this time of the year when fruit is plentiful, attracting a good source of insects for this charming little bird to eat.

I watched the little woodpecker as he scaled each limb and searched every tiny crevice, then I heard the screen door squeak open.

“Karen, are you going to stay out there all day?” my husband questioned casually.

I smiled to myself as I twisted off a night-cooled, moist tangerine and thought, “Well, I would if I could.”

What a joy it is to live on the Suncoast of Florida at this time of year, don’t you agree?

Karen can be reached at

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