Quest for the Three-toed Woodpecker

The woods on either side of the trail seemed to hum with the songs and chirps of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Gray-headed Juncos, Mountain Chickadees, and White-breasted Nuthatches. Periodically, the melodic song of a Hermit Thrush soared above the chatter. It seemed idyllic as I strolled down the path from the exit road out of the parking lot at Sandia Crest, along with 16 other Central New Mexico Audubon’s Thursday Birders.

The field trip had announced that we were going on a quest for an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Trip leader Gale was dubious that we would find one. She had spent the prior two days traipsing back and forth along the trails in the areas where it had been seen the prior two years. “You will see plenty of Hairy Woodpeckers,” she told us before we started out. My friend Sara and I spent time as we were driving comparing and contrasting the field marks of both similar-looking woodpeckers.

female Three-toed Woodpecker - Photo by Rebecca Purvis

female Three-toed Woodpecker - Photo by Rebecca Purvis

We had just finished watching a Hermit Thrush bounce along in the tree litter, when a woodpecker flew in and landed on a spruce trunk right in front of where we were standing. I had just convinced myself it was a Three-toed, when someone called out its name. The bird I was focusing on was a female, so the ID had to be made from the pattern on its back, which Gale described as being like a child scribbling outside the lines. It also had barring on its shanks. Before I could turn on my camera, it was gone. Becky grabbed a photo as it was making its move.

Meanwhile, others in the group had focused on another one – a male. “I can see the yellow crown spot,” Donna exclaimed.

And, then they were off, never to be seen again. We felt fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.

Further along the path we stopped when we heard a light tap-tapping. Since Three-toed Woodpeckers flake off bits of bark, they don’t have the nail-pounding drum of other woodpeckers. Could it be another one? But no, it was a White-breasted Nuthatch pecking away. After it retrieved the insect, it flew up, and then popped into a hole in the side of an aspen trunk – its nest!

We heard the tin horn call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It always sounds much further away than it actually is. Donna describes them as being like a ventriloquist. And, then we saw one in a tree right next to the path, working busily amongst the wispy moss, which hung like the long strands of a stringy beard from the branches of a number of conifers.

Western Wallflower

Western Wallflower

We watched a Hairy Woodpecker, Green-tailed Towhee and House Wren in Kiwanis Meadow. There was a profusion of wildflowers. The reddish-orange Western Wallflower stood out amongst the rest. It normally is yellow; however, at higher elevations it is a darker, more brilliant color.

Rocky Mt. Penstemon

Rocky Mt. Penstemon

The royal-purple flowers of the Rocky Mountain Penstemon was a close second. A variety of bees and flies hovered around and slipped in and out of the funnel-shaped flowers.

“I wonder what kind of flycatcher that is,” someone commented and our attention was focused away from the flowers to a number of small birds ‘fly-catching’ from the trees across from the meadow.

“I see some yellow,” someone else stated.

“They are Yellow-rumped Warblers,” John said. “They often have that kind of behavior.”

We wandered along Crest Trail for a ways and then down one of the side trails, hoping to have another look at the woodpecker. There were very few of the indicative spruce chips we had seen in prior years that led us to the woodpecker. On either side of the trail was a jumble of fallen trees, victims of bark beetle disease. Many more were marked with blue, indicating they are slated to be felled to prevent harm to someone on a nearby trail.

juvenile Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Photo by Rebecca Purvis

juvenile Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Photo by Rebecca Purvis

A small bird caught our attention as it worked the edges of the trail along the meadow. It didn’t seem to have any particular salient field marks.

“It’s a Ruby-crowned Kinglet,” Charlie all of a sudden reported. “I can see its red crest.” We were all intrigued that while it didn’t have its wing bars or eye ring, it already had a red crest.

Back at the cars we went through the list for the day and were delighted that we had seen 30 species, including the Great-horned Owl fly-over spotted by Sei’s car on the way up to the Crest and about 10 species seen at the Sandia Ranger Station where we had convened earlier that morning. Most important, our quest for the American Three-toed Woodpecker had been successful.

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