Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Wonderful Woodpeckers of the Tuolumne River

One of the constant joys of birdwatching along the Tuolumne River along the Parkway Trail is the variety of woodpeckers who are almost ever-present along the walkway. Eight species of woodpecker have been reported in Stanislaus County. I see three of them on a constant basis, and I've seen two more species on rare occasions. The three I have yet to see are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (very rare in our area), the Lewis's Woodpecker, and the Hairy Woodpecker.
Often the first one I will see or hear will be the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). A small colony of three or four of them live in a dead cottonwood tree near the west end of the trail. I often hear their distinctive call before I see them. They are usually busy hiding their precious acorns in the tree trunks, and spend a lot of time guarding their stores. Their faces make me think of clowns.
I often hear a chirp - chirp - chrrrchrrrrchrrrrr in the trees above the trail, high in the oak trees. It is a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) which is about as close to being a California endemic species as a bird can be. They range just into the northern part of Baja, along with all of four sightings in Nevada, and a single sighting in Oregon. Although they are strongly associated with oak trees, they don't consume acorns. They are more interested in gleaning bugs from the furrows in the trunks of the trees.
The third of the common woodpeckers on the Tuolumne River is the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). They look less like "normal" woodpeckers, and behave differently in many ways as well. For one, they spend much of their time foraging for ants and beetles on the ground. I almost always hear their piercing call before I see them.
The "rare" woodpeckers, the ones I only see occasionally, include the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescents), and the Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber). I've only seen the Downy Woodpecker a half-dozen times in the past two years, and the Sapsucker only once, back in October. Across the entire county, there have only been a dozen or so reports of the Red-breasted Sapsucker this year (and none at all of the Yellow-breasted variety).

The sighting of Downy Woodpecker this morning was what got me thinking about how often I see woodpeckers along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail. I didn't get a clear picture this time, but I've included a picture from a few years ago. The Downy (and similar Hairy) Woodpeckers are similar to the Nuttall's Woodpecker overall, but the Nuttall's have bars across their back while the others have a vertical white band.

We've seen 116 species of birds on the Tuolumne trail this year. If you are patient (and willing the climb the stairway), it's a great place to practice your birdwatching skills.

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