Thursday, December 06, 2007

Woodpeckerpalooza

Red-shafted flicker at Bosque.


One of the great pleasures of this year's trip to New Mexico was that it was Woodpeckerpalooza. We scored more good looks at the members of the Piciformes than any other family.

It started out normally enough with the expected red-shafted flickers at Bosque del Apache NWR.
The flickers were going ape for the fruits on this tree in Socorro.


On Saturday, on the first trip we lead to Water Canyon (about 20 miles northwest of Socorro), our van was at the end of the caravan of vehicles heading up to start birding at the campground. We stopped along the entrance road, about half a mile below the campground, to look at some acorn woodpeckers and it was so birdy, we spent the next 30 minutes enjoying the birds.

The sunlight had hit this part of Water Canyon, so the birds and insects were active. The air was warming, too, so even the little birds--the bushtits and mountain chickadees--were moving about and calling. Farther up the canyon, the campground was still in the shade of the canyon walls, and the cold air prevailed making it far less active for birds.

While following the flight of the flock of acorn woodpeckers to a hackberry tree, I spied a long, dark sapsucker. Then another and another. They were not all the same species, either! The darkest one flew. No white in the wings. Striped overall. Yellow belly patch. A female Williamson's sapsucker! I shouted as the bird disappeared over the trees, headed down the canyon. Few others got on it. And this was a target bird.
Acorn woodpecker with its distinctive "clown make-up" face and head pattern.


Sapsucker wells and acorn woodpecker cache holes. The acorn woodpeckers store acorns in the holes for future consumption.

We enjoyed the acorn woodpeckers who seemed oblivious to our presence. They had been working over this hackberry tree for some time, it was clear.

I relocated the other sapsuckers--they were red-naped sapsuckers. They hung in the tree for the entire time we were there, tap-drilling new holes, and hitching from well to well. These were my best looks ever at this species, so I tried to soak up the experience as I got the spotting scope on a superb male for the trip participants.

Canyon towhee, western bluebird, Townsend's solitaire, western scrub jay and Steller's jay were among the other species highlights. Overhead common ravens kept up a constant stream of growls and croaks. We'd come from the desert below, where the ravens were all Chihuahuan (formerly called white-necked raven).

Soon guilt set in and we realized we'd better rejoin the main group at the campground. Up the road we went, intent on hiking up the mountain trail to where we'd heard a pair of Williamson's sapsuckers had been seen.

From the parking lot, we hiked up the logging/access road. The altitude was enough for us flatlanders to get short of breath. Scars six feet up the trunks of the ponderosa pines showed us where the snow plow had passed the previous winter.

The birding here was very quiet. Nothing much moving or calling. Then someone spotted a swooping woodpecker, flying to a the largest tree trunk in view. It was the Williamson's sapsucker! A male this time. He was very shy and scooted to the back side of the tree each time we tried to maneuver for a better view.

Leading a birding trip and bird photography do not mix, I found. It just didn't feel right to be concentrating on taking photos while several folks still needed to get on the bird. So I got the scope on the bird...and it flew.

Our first look at a male Wiliamson's sapsucker.

Most of our group decided to head on up the trail to meet the rest of our trip's participants. I radioed Julie, leading a group farther up the mountain. "Nothing much up here." Came the answer. I decided to sit tight to wait for the sapsucker to come back.

Until the late 19th century, the male and female Williamson's sapsucker were thought to be separate species. And it's understandable--they look completely different from one another. The male is boldly marked with black, white, red, and yellow. The female's coloration is more muted overall. She lacks his obvious white wing patch, as well as the boldly striped black head.

Back at Water Canyon, we were soon rewarded for being patient. A female came in. After she left a male came in too. Clearly this ponderosa pine--the largest in sight in these woods--was they favored foraging tree. I radioed up the mountain and Julie's group hoofed it back down to see the bird.

After everyone had gotten an eyeful, I snapped of a few frames with my Canon 30D. Shooting into the light I knew they'd be horrible, but I wanted a documentary record. The Wiliamson's sapsucker is named for a Lieutenant Robert Stockton Williamson, an early western surveyor.

The male Williamson's flashy plumage is obvious even from a great distance in poor light.


I think this might be a young male Williamsons. The face and head pattern seem to bold for a brownish female.

We returned to Water Canyon the next day, and had equally good luck with the woodpeckers. I still had no time or luck with photographing the woodpeckers, but Julie and I (and our fellow leaders Mary and Rob) got a lot of people their life looks at several birds.


The following day we were in Arroyo Seco in the northern part of NM. It was here, the previous year, that we'd found a colony of Lewis' woodpeckers. After several attempts to see the birds--their grove of cottonwoods seemed to have been taken over by American crows--we finally gt a single individual. The Lewis' woodpecker is named for Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. I didn't realize it when it happened, but a few hours later I would sweep the "Corps of Discovery" species by seeing a Clark's nutcracker!
Meriwether Lewis' woodpecker preening in a cottonwood.

The Lewis' woodpecker is a fine bird. It's got loads of color, it perches for long periods allowing good looks. And it flies like a crow--not in the undulating flight style of most woodpeckers. It was clear to us that the Lewis' woodpeckers used this cottonwood grove only from late morning until early afternoon. They preened and foraged in the sun. But when the day got on toward dusk, the crowns and ravens took over and the woodpeckers departed quietly for their roosts.

We also saw hairy woodpeckers and ladder-backed woodpeckers on this trip. However, the most special woodpecker was one we found on our last full day in the Land of Enchantment.

More on that soon....

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