Sunday, March 22, 2015

Black-backed Woodpeckers on Trinity Mountain Road

On the last day of June took a drive into the mountains east of Prairie, hoping to make our way up towards the Trinities. We didn’t know at the time that the road in to the Trinities from the Prairie side is much more treacherous than the road in from the Pine/Featherville side, and we ended up running into a wall of snow three miles shy of the Trinity Lakes. We turned around and took our time on the way out.

Map

Google map of our trip from Boise up to the Trinity Mountains.

The scenery along the entire drive was heavily impacted by huge fires in 2012 and 2013. The first stretch, from Blacks Creek Road to Prairie, burned in the Pony Complex fire of 2013, the stretch from Prairie until most of the way towards the Trinities burned in the Elk Complex fire of 2013, and the final stretch burned in the Trinity Ridge fire of 2012.

Fire Map

Boise National Forest fire history map (1900-2013) for the Forest Service.

There were long stretches where the earth was completely scorched, and things still had not really started to grow back, other areas where the trees were all torched but the undergrowth seemed to be recovering well, and other stretches where the fire seemed to have just taken a handful of trees here and there, while leaving many trees intact.

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Scorched earth on the road to the Trinities, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Burn scars on the Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

Anytime I see a burn area I start thinking about woodpeckers, especially Black-backed Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers are highly nomadic, moving between burn areas following outbreaks of wood-boring beetles that thrive on dead trees. They can move in to a burn area as soon as 3 months following the fire, and usually remain for 2-3 years before the abundance of the beetles they depend on starts to diminish.

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Black-backed Woodpecker range map from Birds of North America Online.

We figured that since the burn area was just shy of a year old, the timing should be great for finding Black-backed Woodpeckers. We drove slowly through the burned-over forest listening for any tapping sounds, calls, or rattles that might give away the presence of a woodpecker. In a few areas we broadcasted their “chek” or “kyik” calls, hoping to draw one out that might be lurking out of view. Overall, we saw surprisingly few birds in the area, and there really weren’t all that many woodpeckers in the area. We did find a couple of Hairy Woodpeckers at two different stops along the way.

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Hairy Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Hairy Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

Trinity Mountain Road, the area we focused our search efforts on, follows Fall Creek down the southern face of the Trinities until it meets Meadow Creek at House Mountain Road. The creek fed a little ribbon of green that really stood out compared to all the black in the area, and we figured our best hope for finding our Black-backed Woodpecker would be somewhere along that ribbon of green. However, that ribbon ended at the junction with House Mountain Road and Meadow Creek, so when we got to the end of the road without having found our bird yet, we really slowed down and tried to pay even closer attention.

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Google map of the junction of Trinity Mountain Road/Fall Creek and House Mountain Road/Meadow Creek.

Luckily, after really taking our time on this last stretch, we finally found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers! First, we just heard the “kyik” call, far off in the trees, and then after a few minutes we saw one, then another, swoop into the trees near the confluence of Meadow and Fall Creeks. They mostly stayed in the shadowy sides of the trees, which makes it awful difficult to get good photos, but I couldn’t help but try.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

Notice how in almost every picture, they manage to stay in the shade, no matter how bright everything around them is!

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

I couldn’t ever catch a glimpse of yellow crown that the males have, but I’m not sure whether that meant both birds I saw were females, or if I just didn’t ever get a good enough look. Either way, the two birds seemed a bit contentious with each other, and chased each other between trees a couple of times, so we got to see them on a handful of different backdrops.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

At one point, I saw a really odd behavior from one of the two, where it seemed like it was stretching out its wings to appear more intimidating as it darted around the trunk of a tree. I don’t know for sure what it was doing, but it sure seemed like an act of aggression or defensiveness. Check out this series:

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

Given the timing of late June, it’s also possible that these were juvenile siblings, hatched early that year. If this is the case, that would explain the lack of yellow crowns (if they’re males), and the darker flanks and bellies. It also makes me wonder if the behavior I observed was just some sort of sibling rivalry or play, practicing their territory defense skills before they disperse at the end of the season and start their own separate lives next spring.

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Black-backed Woodpecker on Trinity Mountain Road, Elmore County. June 30, 2014.

Whatever the explanation, it was a fun time to observe these birds, and we were thrilled to find our own woodpeckers by following the habitat clues and being patient. In the past, we’ve only seen Black-backed Woodpeckers that were originally found by someone else, so it was even more fun knowing that we found these on our own. Hopefully they’ll still be using the area next year, and we can repeat our good luck!

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