How sweet to be immersed in the silence and solitude of the forest. Your heart and breathing slows so you can really listen. Ah, silence… but wait… a distant tapping. You take a couple more steps to adjust your position, and you hear a high sharp, “peek!” Then you spot the black and white darting bird as it starts in on another tree. But that sharp sound the woodpecker made while in flight carried through the forest as a contact call to the bird’s mate who was just a couple hundred feet away working at pulling flecks of bark off of a lodgepole pine. The pine bark beetle larva, just under the outer bark in the nutritious cambium layer of the tree, makes for a readily available and steady food source for the woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers rely primarily on insects and insect larvae for their food source. The woodpecker uses its sharply pointed bill like a chisel to remove bark and expose insects, spiders, and larvae. Woodpeckers have long spiny tongues with sticky saliva which allows them to remove insects from deep cracks and hard to reach places inside of trees.
Woodpeckers have three different types of pecking. One, as described above, to find food. Another type of pecking is boring a hole in a tree to make a nesting cavity for rearing young. Often they choose a soft-wooded aspen or a standing dead tree in these parts. Woodpeckers spend an average of two weeks pecking out a nesting cavity, and they may peck several cavities before choosing the optimal site. Their old or unused nesting cavities are often occupied by other birds such a tree swallows, bluebirds, or house wrens which require nesting cavities, yet cannot peck their own. The third type of pecking is a series of rhythmic taps known as drumming which serves as communication in finding a mate, and establishing a territory. Territories limit overlapping competition for local food sources and nesting sites. Drumming is heard in the spring time when male woodpeckers are vying for the pretty girls. While songbirds sing, woodpeckers drum.
What species of woodpeckers are you likely to see here in Eagle County? In winter, Hairy (9”) and Downy (7”) woodpeckers are common. They are extremely similar, differing mainly in size and proportion. They are black and white overall with white flanks and chest. Males have a touch of red on the very top of their head (crown). Keep your eyes especially peeled for the Three-toed Woodpecker, which is more elusive, with barred flanks. Look for faint yellow speckles on its’ forehead. You’ll need binoculars. In summer you can add Red-naped Sapsucker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and Northern Flicker, to the list of woodpeckers seen in this area.
Birdwatching hones your power of observation, and your ability to listen closely. Slow down, breath lightly, and listen carefully when you’re in the forest… you might just stumble upon… oh my… is that a Three-toed Woodpecker?!
Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.