American Three-toed Woodpecker at Sandia Crest – Yes!

“My first lifer of the trip,” exclaimed a woman who was visiting from Seattle as she got out of the car in the lower parking lot of Sandia Crest, one of the sites in Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico. She had seen her first Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Then the hummer came close to take a look at the flower on Phil’s Hawaiian shirt.

Four Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Juncos flew in and landed in the middle of the exit road from the parking lot. Juveniles.

Rocky Mountain Penstemon

The Rocky Mountain Penstemon bloomed all along the edge of the parking area that was in the sun.

Bird activity was all around us as soon as we started walking along Kiwanis Meadow Road towards Kiwanis Meadow. It was hard to know where to focus.

“A Brown Creeper,” Donna said as she pointed towards a fallen tree trunk. It was walking upside down along the length of the trunk.

A Mountain Chickadee called, and then we heard the tin-horn call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. We would hear and see many of them during the morning.

Further along, we heard a Hermit Thrush sing its flute-like call. It was answered by another one nearby. They sang back and forth and some got looks at one of them. Hermit Thrushes were heard singing all through the forest as we explored. “It’s almost time for them to stop singing,” I stated.

At the corner of Kiwanis Meadow, we spotted a woodpecker flying and focused our binoculars on it. “There are two,” someone said.

Was it the coveted American Thee-toed Woodpecker?

Hairy Woodpecker

“This one is a male Hairy,” Bonnie said. “I can see the red on its crown.”

“The other one has a smaller beak,” one of the group stated. When we checked Sibley’s, we discovered that the juvenile has a much shorter beak. So, the second one must have been a juvenile Hairy.

We began to discuss the distinctive features of the Three-toed to help us distinguish it from the similar-sized Hairy: barring on the sides and some on its sides. The male has a yellow crown.

“Listen for their distinctive drumming,” I recommended. “It is slower than the Hairy, and not as loud, which sounds like a nail being pounded. And, look on the group below Englemann Spruce trees for fresh bark chips.”

“I suggest we break up into three groups,” trip leader Rebecca said. “I will give each group a two-way radio and whoever finds it first can radio the others. Karen, will you take one group, Judy another one, and I will take the 3rd group.”

I took my group along the Switchback Trail, Karen’s group followed the Burn Trail, and Rebecca headed down to the Ellis Trail.

Our group hadn’t gone far when someone spotted a female Western Tanager. As they were observing her, I heard soft drumming, which I was sure was a Three-toed. As we headed down the trail, I asked everyone to walk in silence so I could try and hear it again. We saw evidence of fresh bark chips.

“Whose call is that?” I asked Sei and Bonnie when I heard an unfamiliar call. No one recognized it.

After walking about a quarter of a mile and not hearing any more drumming, we decided to return to the Crest Trail. When we were almost back, I heard Rebecca over the two-way radio. “We have three of them just off the Ellis Trail,” she called.

“We are heading your way now,” I responded and we picked up our pace.

American Three-toed Woodpecker – Photo by Bonnie Long

When we arrived at the spot where her group was gathered, there was a male intently chipping off bark to find insects. It didn’t seem bothered by our presence. Then it called – the sound we had not recognized on the other trail!

“Ellen saw a female feeding a juvenile,” Rebecca told us. We were content with the unobstructed view of the male working diligently in front of us.

Unfortunately, Karen’s group never heard the message on her radio.

We gathered at the Crest House to eat lunch, watch the hummingbird feeders (including a couple of Rufous), and go over the list for the morning.

“What we lacked in numbers,” Rebecca summed up, “we made up for with quality.”


4 thoughts on “American Three-toed Woodpecker at Sandia Crest – Yes!

  1. It’s wonderful that the three-toes have returned to Sandia Crest after being absent for ten or more years, and that they seem to be thriving!

    Thanks so much for sharing the experience, Judy!

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