“Holy Shit, there’s a fucking Lewis’s Woodpecker in the backyard. I gotta call you back.”
I was talking with my friend Ryan on the phone about birding, standing in my parents’ jungle of a suburban backyard. A few less usual birds, including a Yellow Warbler and a Hairy Woodpecker had moved through already. But this bird prompted exclamations, decidedly foul ones I’m admittedly loose with.
My parents are well versed in the the rabid affect of rare birds. They’ve been privy to it since I was a youngster with 7×50 Bushnell Binoculars, calling Phoebes “Foe Bees.” A White-tailed Kite flew over our backyard, I wasn’t able to document with a photograph, but I tore through the house yelling about it. The Lewis’s Woodpecker got the same response 16 years later.
These woodpeckers, if it hasn’t been obvious yet, are not a regular visitor to the backyard. They are a declining species, that is almost entirely restricted to East of the Cascades in Washington. Regularly venturing over during migration, even in 1982, they were absent in King County, having previously nested locally on the West side. A consistent practice of snag removal by humans and significant competition from the European Starling are two purported reasons for a noted decline since the 1960s. They rely on decaying snags often most common in burns, particularly in open Cottonwood or Ponderosa Pine forests and secondarily in Oak woodland, for nesting as well as for food caching. However, although their decline is certain, their sporadic distribution leaves us woefully unsure of how this plays out over their entire range.
In Washington they are now easiest to find in areas around Yakima and overwintering birds are strictly east of the southern stretch of the Cascades (except in rare occasions when they hold up in the West). Their migratory habits are far from predictable but generally they don’t stick around in the northern parts of their range, particularly in Washington and British Columbia. They also move around to opportunistically forage and have also been documented in nomadic groups.
Their most definitive behavior is what caught my eye. When Lewis and Clark ventured across the continent, Lewis first described the bird with some apparent confusion, as a “black woodpecker (or crow)” that “flys a good deal like a jay bird.” My first experiences with this bird, I too picked up on this, nicknaming it the crow woodpecker in my notebook. Glides, slow wing beats, and sallying flights are so aberrant from the typically undulating flight of the order Piciformes, the woodpeckers. Only its congeners, the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Acorn Woodpecker show slight hints of similar propulsion.
My initiated parents had reacted very reasonably to my screaming and running through the house. They shut the dog inside and followed me out with binoculars. We watched the bird flycatching from the tops of several large Douglas Firs, too far for a good picture but recognizable certainly. It had also gained the curiosity of a Steller’s Jay (being probably the first Lewis’s Woodpecker it’d ever seen), who flew in and tailed the woodpecker as it went about foraging. Just when my heart rate had slowed, I realized there were two birds looping about in the wind!
At first, I assumed they were migrants. But it wasn’t a far leap to think they could be in a nomadic group. Additionally they were making the best of the winged termites that had been about the past couple days. Could it be that they’d ended up here in search of a last hatch of insects before settling down for a winter of acorns and other nuts? Seems as good an explanation as any.
With unique behavior and the striking meld of dark iridescence, gray, and watermelon pink plumage they’re striking birds. I profess a love of woodpeckers, but it seems ironic this un-woodpecker like species is a favorite. My family enjoyed both birds as they floated up high, occasionally taking breaks in the fir tops. Whatever their reason for being there, they stuck around for another day before disappearing into the sublime ether of rare birds, always a pleasant surprise.