Three-toed Woodpeckers at Sandia Crest

As if birding at the Capulin Log wasn’t enough, some of us wanted more and drove another two and a half miles up to Sandia Crest at over 10 K feet, in search of the American Three-toed Woodpecker. Absent for several years, it had returned last summer and nested again at the crest this year.

We parked in the lower parking lot near the trail that leads to Kiwanis Meadow. A few birds flitted high in the fir trees, making them difficult to identify.

“Drumming,” someone said and we focused on the left side of the road. We also heard a squeaky ‘peek’.

“The peak sounds like a squirrel,” Ray stated.

The drumming stopped and most of our group of 12 started down the trail where they stopped to watch a Brown Creeper. Donna and I were at the tail end. All of a sudden I saw a bird fly to a tree about 15 feet away. A woodpecker, but I couldn’t tell which one. It started drumming. And then we heard the squeaky ‘peek’ again and saw a slightly smaller woodpecker on a branch near the one that was drumming. It was not a squirrel.

“It’s begging!” I exclaimed and peered at it through my binoculars. I could see the red on the front of the crown, rather than the back of its head. “It’s not our three-toed; it’s a juvenile Hairy.” After watching a few minutes, we hurried to catch up with the rest of the group.

We turned on the South Crest Trail and then scouted a short ways on the Ellis Trail.

A mat of wood chips under several trees indicated that an American Three-toed Woodpecker had been feeding in the area, but the woods were quiet.

Flakes of bark from American Three-toed Woodpecker

Flakes of bark from American Three-toed Woodpecker

We decided to split up. Two stayed at that location, Rebecca took off across the woods to search the middle trail, a contingent was sent back up to the main trail and Donna and I waited on the crest trail. Several groups of hikers and families trekked along the trail. I am always amazed when I see someone hiking in flip flops.

We decided it was too busy and noisy to hear any drumming and began to explore. A Hermit Thrush that sang its flute-like call just two weeks ago, now sat elusively on the branch of a tree.

All of a sudden we heard drumming and followed the sound. I saw a woodpecker fly from one tree to another – and then a large piece of bark floated down. It had to be the three-toed!

“We have it,” Donna called into the two-way radio so the others could head our way.

Bark continued to fall and Donna got it into view – and then it flew again just as the others began to arrive. It was working at the top of a conifer. Everyone got it in view and we began ticking off the identifying field marks: barring on its back and flanks; the drumming was slower and more deliberate than the Hairy. Bark scales continued to fly as looked for grubs under the surface. It lacked yellow on the crown, so was a female.

“Did you count the toes?” Dennis asked with a chuckle.

For several in the group it was a life bird.

“The three-toed isn’t attracted to dead trees,” Rebecca explained. “Rather it seeks out trees that are infested with beetles and are in the process of dying.”

A House Wren danced along the top of a log as we headed back to the parking lot.

As we ate our lunch, Broad-tailed, Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds mobbed the three feeders along the deck of the Crest House, unperturbed by people who stood close by taking photos. We always like to eat at the Crest House to support the Romeros, the owners, who have been so supportive of birders and the winter bird-banders.

One thought on “Three-toed Woodpeckers at Sandia Crest

  1. Hi, Judy– I am working to revise my rosyfinch Web suite in preparation for the arrival of the finches. I have added a link to this post on the “American Three-toed Woodpecker” information anchor.

    Thanks for writing such delightful descriptions of places I miss since moving to Florida!


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