Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers at Ponderosa SP

On June 27 an out of town birder visiting Ponderosa State Park wrote into IBLE about a very peculiar bird behavior he had observed:

“This past Sunday (6/23) at the northern section of Ponderosa Park (north end of Payette Lake), around noon, I was pleased find a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers at their nest hole.  It appeared to me that they were feeding young.  Just a few minutes after seeing both male and female come and go, I was pleased to see a male Three-toed Woodpecker in the same group of trees, then amazed to see this last bird fly to the same nest hole and apparently feed young also!”

Over the next few days many birders rushed up to see the birds, both because it was an unusual sight to see two species sharing a nest hole, and also because American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers are among Idaho’s hardest to find breeding woodpeckers. The reports kept pouring in to IBLE, confirming the strange finding. We started to feel a sense of urgency about getting up there, since there was a limited amount of time before the birds would fledge, and also because the 4th of July was approaching, along with all the crowds and noises that could potentially disrupt the birds.


Location of the shared nest hole at Ponderosa SP – North Beach unit, Valley County.

On the 2nd and 3rd of July we made back to back trips up to see if we could locate the birds. That was over 10 hours of driving between the two days, so thank goodness it’s a beautiful drive.

McCall Pano 1

Northeast shore of Payette Lake, Valley County. July 3, 2013.

On our first trip we were surprised by how bad the mosquitos were up there, and struggled to try to track down the nest hole while swatting mosquitoes. It didn’t help that the young birds had been reported to have fledged the day before we arrived, so there was no activity at the nest hole to help us find it. We did eventually find one hole that seemed to match the description, and we were able to compare our picture of it to others that had been posted, and confirmed we were looking at the right hole.

Nest Hole 1

Shared nest hole at Ponderosa SP – North Beach Unit, Valley County. July 2, 2013.

We never saw any activity at the nest hole, but after an hour of watching, listening, and searching for the woodpeckers, we heard an American Three-toed Woodpecker call. We saw it fly between trees a couple of times, but weren’t able to get a great view of it sitting still. Instead, we were treated to a Red-naped Sapsucker that was much more accommodating.


Red-naped Sapsucker at Ponderosa SP – North Beach Unit, Valley County. July 2, 2013.

As the sun started to set we gave up on the Black-backed for the night and headed home. We took a long route, taking advantage of the later-than-usual drive to search for Flammulated Owls in a few stretches of Boise National Forest between Garden Valley and Idaho City.

Sunset 1

Sunset south of McCall, Valley County. July 2, 2013.

We took Alder Creek Road from the South Fork Landing area in Garden Valley, and then Centerville Road to Idaho City. We had driven this route before in the daylight and had noticed that the habitat seemed good for cavity nesting owls and were excited to check it out in the dark.

FLOW route Boise NF map 1

We set up some nice speakers on top of the car, and strapped them down with the cargo net out of the back of the SUV (not sure why I didn’t have my usual bungie cords in the car), and headed on our way. We stopped approximately every mile, skipping stops that had houses nearby, and focusing on any Aspen stands we could find. At each stop, we pulled over and listened quietly for a couple of minutes. Following that we played a Flammulated Owl call for about 30 seconds, then listened for another minute, repeating several times. This is not exactly how a typical survey protocol works. Our stops were further apart, and a little more selective, but we were more interested in getting home before too late, and actually finding an owl, than we were in doing a formal survey protocol.


Out of our 10 or so stops, we managed to see probably half a dozen owls of various sizes. Most of them just breezed through our headlights so quick we couldn’t tell what they were, but likely Great-horneds and Northern Saw-whet Owls were most common. At just one stop, we actually heard a Flammulated Owl respond to our calls. It brought back exhilarating memories of chasing down Elf and Whiskered-screech Owls through the canyons of the southeast Arizona Sky Islands. Something about the sensory deprivation of being out in complete darkness and silence, while deep in the woods on the hunt for a tremendously elusive animal, and then hearing a faint hoot coming from somewhere far away, confirming you’d succeeded in your chase, really burns the moment into your memory.

After our arrival home at 1:30 am, then working another day, we headed back to Ponderosa to try again for the Black-backed Woodpecker since we had missed it the day earlier. We parked by the trailhead the nest was near, and started with a few minutes of watching and listening.

Spring Board Trail

Spring Board Trailhead at Ponderosa SP – North Beach Unit, Valley County. July 3, 2o13.

Swainson’s Thrushes were singing their hearts out all around, though they were hard to get a clear view of. Western Tanagers joined in with their song as well.


Swainson’s Thrush at Ponderosa SP – North Beach Unit, Valley County. July 3, 2013.


Western Tanager at Ponderosa SP – North Beach Unit, Valley County. July 3, 2013.

We wandered in through the woods a bit, and after a half hour or so, we finally heard the tell-tale rattle call of a Black-backed Woodpecker. We certainly never got our soul-satisfying view, though we did see it in flight a couple of times, but we were thrilled to have found both woodpeckers. We also found a single Clark’s Nutcracker. Another birder had reported finding a Varied Thrush earlier in the day, but we were not able to relocate it on our trip.

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