Monday, December 10, 2007

Chasing a Three-toed Lifer!

On our last full day in New Mexico, the weather forecast called for snow and cold. We planned to spend the day in our rented fauxdobe casa playing music with our friend Caroline Quine. But when the day dawned clear and warming and the weather forecasters recanted their earlier prognostications, our two families decided to pursue outdoor adventures.

Our modus in NM has been to take expeditions in search of life birds. As you can imagine, the possibilities get more limited each year. Last year our target bird was the Lewis' woodpecker--a lifer for Julie and a bird I'd only seen twice before (and one of those times was a vagrant bird in Virginia!). We went back to our lucky Lewis' spot again this year and rekindled our acquaintance with this fine species--but there was only one bird, not several as there had been last year. This worried us a bit.

The following day we drove south looking for a good hike and some petroglyphs near Embudo. We never did find the hike or the 'glyphs, but we did drive through several orchards that had trees full of huge red apples. The apples were being eaten by a large number of Lewis' woodpeckers. We needn't have worried.

But back to the life-bird quest.

This year we got ants in the pants to see a northern three-toed woodpecker. It would be a life bird for both of us. For me it would be the last (likely) North American woodpecker to add to my life list. [side note: If some lucky soul in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, or elsewhere can remember to keep their camera ON and lens cap OFF, I might still have one more peckerwood to add, but until then....]

I spent the Wednesday morning before our Thanksgiving Day departure homeward scouring the Web for info on where to find the northern three-toed in New Mexico. I learned that they like burns--places where forest fires have swept through, leaving standing trees and open understory. The most regular spot for our quest bird seemed to be in the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos. The site was known as The Dome Burn. It was in the Carson National Forest--at least 2 hour's drive away from Arroyo Seco where we were staying. One bonus was that Bandelier National Monument was in the same area, so as long as we were making the trek...

Getting the four of us: BT3, Julie, Phoebe, and Liam outfitted, fed, loaded into the car took something like 11 hours. By 11 am we were ready to go. Oops it's time to feed the kids lunch. You know how it goes.

Finding the Dome Burn area took a full two hours. Along the way we had to go through a security checkpoint near Los Alamos, birthplace of nukes. The roads outside of Los Alamos are named for the highlights of the The Nuclear Age: Bikini Atoll Road, Dr. Robert Oppenheiner Road, etc. Thankfully I did not see roads named for Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

As we got into the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos, we could smell the smoke from forest fires. The Dome Burn happened in the 1990s, but intentional burning is still going on throughout this area. Burning the forest to keep it from burning...there is some logic and science in there somewhere. Soon we could see the smoke and even flames on the mountainsides below the road.

Smoke from the burning forest in the Jemez Mountains.

We climbed up and up the twisting mountain road, through the smoke-filled giant pines. It seemed a bit surreal to be driving calmly with other cars on this forest road with fires burning all around.

After following the very precise directions, we found the appropriate dirt road and took it the proscribed distance to the pull-off where our birds should be. The habitat was perfect--a wide open grassy bald with charred snags of fire-killed trees. Stumps from "harvested" timber were everywhere.

While waiting for the birds to appear, I sat on this stump and pondered.

The larger pines survive the fires, the smaller ones succumb. Still, there was ample evidence of life here. Fresh woodpecker drillings, scattered cowpies, horse and ATV tracks, a hiker's lean-to, as well as bits and pieces of trash.

Hiker's lean-to at The Dome Burn area.

Overhead a pod of common ravens croaked their annoyance at our presence. We fanned out and began looking for the woodpecker. It was very quiet and cold here, the sun not strong enough to make much difference. When the wind rose, it cut right through my down jacket.

I thought to try playing the bird's call but my iPod was dead. And I'd forgotten my speakers anyway. So we listened and heard only silence. The only sounds other than the ravens were sounds of Phoebe and Liam and their restless horseplay.

For nearly two hours we walked the burn. I thought I head the bird a couple of times but could never locate it. A feeding flock of pygmy nuthatches and mountain chickadees passed through, the nutties sounding a bit like the three-toed, which got my heart racing.

Pygmy nuthatch.

My feeling that it was only a matter of time before we found the bird (and joy!) now gave way to a rising ache of disappointment, then a taste of desperation. It was time to go. We had only a couple of hours of daylight left and quite a long road ahead of us to get to the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier. I told myself that it was just not meant to be. And, as I've counseled myself (and others) before, once you've seen all the birds, what do you have to look forward to? This would give me a reason to come back to this hauntingly beautiful and lonely place.

The view from The Dome Burn.

We climbed back in the car for the long drive back down the mountains. Along the way we passed newer burns in younger woods. The trees were still charred black with some stumps still smoking. I got a hunch and asked Julie to stop. I heard something. We got out.

There! What's that call?

I mimicked the loud, sweet call note I'd heard--much like a hairy woodpecker's call note. We heard a staccato drum, a woodpecker's territorial business card. A bird flew toward us and over our head, landing, hidden in a roadside ponderosa pine. My heart sank. It looked like a hairy woodpecker--I was expecting something bigger. I trotted up the road to a better vantage point and when I got my bins back on the bird I noticed something right away. Its sides and flanks were barred with charcoal stripes. THAT'S NOT A HAIRY WOODPECKER!

It was our bird--the northern three-toed woodpecker--a female. She called again, hopped up the trunk a few feet, then flew off from whence she came. We had all of 20 seconds to watch her. Julie (with the largest brain in our family) thought quickly and snapped off a few frames of the distant bird. This locked in the ID.

It was a life bird for both of us! Hugs and high-fives all around! Even the kids were happy about it. Sweet!

Northern three-toed woodpecker, female. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

We did make it to Bandelier on time, but only just. I had a close call there. More on that part of the adventure in days to come.

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At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I assume this is the bird the ABA list calls American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)?

At 11:25 AM, Blogger BT3 said...

Yes. American three-toed woodpecker. Formerly known as black-backed three-toed woodpecker. Then it was northern three-toed. Now it's American three-toed.

I'm not always so good at keeping up with the AOU/BOU name changes.

I hear they might split it into Cordilleran, gilded, Baltimore, Kumlien's, and Wilson's three-toed woodpecker, but they're waiting on the results from the DNA lab.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger Kathy said...

Congratulations on finding your life bird!

At 7:32 PM, Blogger KatDoc said...

A BT3 hunch is better than an Internet report! I am constantly amazed by your ability to call birds out of the air, Bill. You are one awesome birder. Congrats on the Lifer woodpecker. Are you going for the Ivory-billed next?

~Kathi, still waiting for her promised Golden-winged Warblers ;)

At 10:06 AM, Blogger dguzman said...

Woo hoo! Beautiful!

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Gosh, Bill, I was on the edge of my seat...disappointed that you did not see the three-toed lifer...then uttered a quiet "Yay". Congratulations and thanks for a great story!

At 3:18 AM, Blogger Marvin said...

Great post. The only thing lacking was a car chase scene. Glad y'all got your bird.


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