I must declare, the last couple of days have absolutely been wonderful. No, it is not because I have tuned out the news – although that would definitely be a good guess. Nope, it is entirely due to getting the chance to spend time outdoors, specifically in our woods. There are few things that brings as much joy as being able to haul out the tools (lopper, rake, ax, chainsaw, tiller etc.) and work the land so to speak. The mission this week, start cutting in a switchback trail to make it easier to traverse the steep terrain to the valley that runs through the middle of our lot. Yesterday I got to stand in the middle of virgin woods and plan out the trail, trying my best to minimize impact to the multitude of trees (contrasted with the absolute malice shown to the intense briar that has nearly bled me dry over the years). Today I got to start clearing the first segment and show my enjoyment by the sweat rolling of my body. Just wish I had full use of my foot, although it definitely felt better to be back in the dirt. In tribute to the fun time outdoors, thought I’d go with a post from the woods family.
Make that the Woodpecker family! The last few posts I have brought you new +1’s from relatively close locations. Going to change that up a bit with today’s featured feathered friend. In fact, this particular Woodpecker is absolutely nowhere near my broke state of Illinois. The White-Headed Woodpecker is a far west year-round resident with a region map that looks like a Rorschach ink blot test as it meanders through California, Oregon and Washington (well, a smidge into Idaho and Canada if we are splitting hairs).
Hit the jump to see some more shots of this attractive Woodpecker and learn how it ended up in my tin.
Oregon and Washington are on the future itinerary to explore, but admittedly, I am NOT a big fan of California having spent a lot of time out there at various technical IT conferences and vendor visits throughout my working career. I have serious angst specifically against San Francisco that I’ve simply lumped into a general dislike with the entire state. I only mention this because we purposely avoid that area on our vacations. That has placed a gap in my birding list which my brother Ron likes to pick at. He has had the opportunity to bird that area and bagged a few checks that he likes to.. let’s just go with “point out” from time to time. “He Ron, did you see in the news where another elite mask hypocrite got busted again?” “Yep, I saw that, did you know I have a White-Headed Woodpecker?”. Or, Ron, did you see our Alma Mater Illinois football team got totally spanked by Wisconsin last week?” “Yep, I saw that, did you know I have a White-Headed Woodpecker?”.
Sigh! Well, guess what folks, I can finally declare I have a White-Headed Woodpecker checkmark now as well. To be honest, he hasn’t really brought this up nearly as much since May of 2019 when these shots were actually taken. He does know I do not allow myself to take credit until it is officially featured on the blog. The ironic part is the reason I have these pictures is partly due to Ron, which brings a chuckle every time I think about it hehehe (see, there it happened again).
You might be asking yourself – he hasn’t been to Oregon and Washington yet and avoids California – how might he come by shots of this obscure Woodpecker. Answer is, thanks to Ron’s son’s (Matt’s) wedding (note I have been to Microsoft’s campus, but that was for an intense 3 day conference and didn’t get to see any of Washington beyond what I flew over). Turns out Matt was having his wedding in Lake Tahoe and invited us to join in the celebration. We had never been in that area before and decided it would be a great chance to see what it was all about – besides, it is only like two feet into California.
I would be lying if I didn’t note that the missing check had a significant influence on the decision to travel out there. Priority #1 – see our nephew enter the next phase in his life with an absolutely wonderful woman, Priority #2 – find that damn bird. From the moment after we made the flight arrangements until the day we left, my nose was in the research books and on the Internet plotting how to tin Whitey. The region map lined up well and there were several locations around there that had documented sightings.
Based on the drive path from are starting point in Reno, NV, the best opportunity was in Davis Creek Regional Park in Washoe Valley, NV – just northeast of Tahoe. Long time readers of Intrigued, may recognize that place being where I managed to tin the Western Tanager on this very same trip (link here). Think I might have even mentioned in that post there was another great tin while we were there.
To say I was on a mission that day is probably an understatement. I had one day (at least I thought at the time) to find one bird in a massive forest and get enough in the tin to claim this coveted check to chip away at Ron’s bird count lead. First task, hit the visitor center and see if they could get me in the general location. Walked in and there were a couple of young girls working the desk. They greeted us and asked us if we had any questions – why yes, I did. “Can you point me to the best location to spot the White-Headed Woodpecker!?!”. Maybe my enthusiasm caught them off guard, but they just stared at me, silent, unmoving, deer in the headlight pose. “What is that?” “Well, it is a living version of that” as I pointed to the stuffed one they had on the wall to their right. “Oh, I don’t know, sorry – you might try over here” as she pointed to a trailhead. Good enough, we were off.
Linda and I headed out to find this bird knowing it might be a needle in a haystack excursion. Nothing on the lower part of the park, so I opted to head up the steep mountain. Linda was still dealing with her bad heart valve so she told me to head up there myself and she would hang around the bottoms. Reluctant at first, decided it had to be done and headed up. Got pretty far up where I found the Tanager. After getting those tins I was surprised to see Linda had decided to come up after all. That was not an easy hike and a little shocked she made it. Told her to stay put, briskly walked up another half mile as a last ditch attempt to see the Woodpecker and came back down without luck (of course Linda ignored me and came up higher ugh). Decided to throw in the towel and we headed back down. Was actually telling Linda how disappointed I was when a white and black bird flashed across the trail in front of us. Holy crap, there it was! Not only did we find it, it stayed relatively out in the open allowing me to get the shots at the front of this post. It eventually took off deeper in the woods, but I think I floated the rest of the way down that hill and back to the car. Mission accomplished (at least priority 2).
The rest of the trip to Tahoe was reliving the experience. I managed to find it and technically still in Nevada, so double bonus – forgot to mention their region map has just a slight section at the Nevada bend. Made it to our hotel room in Tahoe dying to update Ron on the new addition.
Now I need to explain the last two shots. While hauling in the last of the gear (and The Beast), I looked up and saw a rather large hole in the wood siding of the resort. Thought to myself, wouldn’t it be funny if that was a White Hea….holy shit, look at that while catching Linda’s attention. We had to trek up a mountain just a few hours ago and there’s the Woodpecker four feet from the door of our hotel room. Got the Beast wrangled and managed to get one slightly blurry shot before the female took flight. Bri, you are making this birding thingy WAAAAAYYYY too hard.
Turns out there were a number of other White-Headeds hanging out in the woods surrounding our hotel. Managed to tin a few of those, but the earlier encounter produced a lot better shots mostly due to how dark it was in the woods at Tahoe. What I did manage was to get a few (again, slightly soft) images of a male in flight.
This shows the white patches on their wings that really pop against the pitch black body. A nice accent to their bright white head. When their wings are retracted, you only see the edge of this wing patch. Very reminiscent of the Pileated patches, but smaller and doesn’t go all the way to the breast like that much larger bird (link here).
On the color front, like many of the Woodpeckers, the gender can be identified by the head markings. They both have the predominantly white head that forms a hood along the top, sides and on the throat. The males, however, have a red patch on the back of their head. This crown is very easy to see as it is bordered by the white of the head and the deep black of the back feathering.
Added a shot directly from the rear just to point out how hard it would be to spot this bird if it wasn’t for their brilliant white (and red for the males) on their head, especially in any dark setting. At first the camera sensor didn’t even want to believe there was something there.
Unfortunately, spent a long time on the backstory (‘cuz I thought it was interesting myself) and now out of shots – better get to the interesting tidbits before I let you go. From my observation, these Woodpeckers are very similar to Pileateds in their hunting behavior. Initially I was looking high in the trees expecting them to spend their time up there like the Red-Bellies and Downies – doesn’t seem to be the case. In both the Davis Creek and the Tahoe sighting they were staying low on the tree trunks – under 5 to 6 feet as they traversed across the forest which is where I’ve come to focus with regards to the Pileated. According to Cornell, the White-Headed are partial to ponderosa and sugar pine. Another observation that Cornell confirms is I never saw them drum on trees, rather purposeful pokes as it moved up and and down the trunk. Cornell states “they are not as noisy in foraging as other woodpeckers, but they do drum during the spring”. Contrast that with the Pileateds which have an absolute jackhammer of a drill. My approach to looking high and listening for the pounding was “right out” ha!
Hope you enjoyed seeing and reading about my latest list addition. “Hey Ron, did you hear about the White-Headed Woodpecker I tinned”.. was that a sigh, I think I heard a sigh.