Woodpeckers Abounded in the Mountains above Cuba, NM

Lewis’s Woodpecker – Photo by Phil Trine

As our car rounded the bend, we could see the vehicles of all of the other Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders pulled over on the side of the road, with their binoculars peeled at a power pole. A Lewis’s Woodpecker was hanging on the side of the bare wood and appeared to be busy probing its beak into the soft wood. As opposed to most woodpeckers, the Lewis’s Woodpecker does not bore into wood to glean insects; rather it catches them by fly-catching. It also might have been storing broken pieces of acorns into crevices in the wood. After concentrating on the post for a while, it turned its head and flew off.

We were driving through farm land on the Los Pinos County Road in the San Pedro Mountains north of Cuba. We had passed Western Bluebirds and a tree full of Turkey Vultures before stopping. Behind the Lewis’s Woodpecker, we watched Mountain Bluebirds dancing on and off a fence line – their sky blue feathers of the males reflecting the sunlight. Barn Swallows swooped over the fields. Some of the birders were lucky to catch a glimpse of a Black-billed Magpie.

As we wound through the valley and climbed in elevation, the farmland gradually evolved into a pine-oak forest. We finally arrived at our destination, the Circle A Ranch and Hostel.

“Williamson’s Sapsucker,” Paulina alerted us as we gathered on the patio outside of the lodge. It was a male who was hanging upside down feasting on an apple. It flew off and then the female descended. After a few bites, it glided over to a nearby tree, giving us a better look.

female Williamson’s Sapsucker

“Before you head off into the wilderness area,” trip leader Rebecca suggested, “perhaps you would like a little history about the ranch.” Owner Marion Wolf explained that the ranch sits on traditional grazing land of the Navajo and today is surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest. It was originally purchased from the Navajos to build a hunting camp, and later obtained by her mother who wanted to open a girls’ camp.

As she was talking, her story periodically was interrupted by a loud thump. It sounded like something was being dropped on the tin roof of the office. Later, I discovered that it was the sound of an Acorn Woodpecker as it hammered an acorn into a crevice under the eaves.

As we walked out to the meadow behind the buildings, Acorn Woodpeckers flew back and forth between a large oak tree across the pasture and one of their granaries. Western Bluebirds flew on and off the top of a fence line.

“Lark Sparrow,” someone commented and pointed to some exposed branches on a nearby tree.

Acorn Woodpecker and its granary post

The rest of the group headed for the wilderness area, while I sat on a bench behind the building and watched the industrious woodpeckers stockpiling for the winter. While their wide-eyed expressions give them a clown-like appearance, they are not slackers. In fact, you could call them workaholics. The nine woodpeckers I counted as they flew back and forth were part of an extended family. Each member seemed to have its own individual storage area that made up the family’s collective granary. One pounded acorns into a post in the side of an out-building, two wedged acorns under the eaves or separate buildings, another favored the top of a power pole, etc.

Not only were they industrious, they ‘talked’ the entire time, as if to say, “this looks like a great one, I think I’ll put it here,” or “I only have 15 more rows of holes to fill in.”

According to the summer issue of Living Bird, a publication of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the largest granary on record contained about 50,000 acorns!

Red-naped Sapsucker drilling for sap

A Red-naped Sapsucker flew into an aspen tree close to where I was sitting. It evidently was impinging on the Acorn Woodpeckers’ territory. One of them zoomed over, yakking loudly and shooed the sapsucker away.

While the rest of the group might have examined and photographed high-elevation butterflies, or discovered montane birds or migrating warblers, I relished the time I spent studying the Acorn Woodpeckers.


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