Nature Notes

Volume XXI - 1955

Woodpecker Activities
By Donald Van Tassel, Ranger Naturalist

Before the month of June was very old, I realized that this was going to be a good summer to get well acquainted with woodpeckers. Upon moving into the Annie Spring trailer court, the family of Seasonal Ranger J. Francis Stine informed me of recent activity by a male Arctic three-toed woodpecker, Picoides arcticus (Swainson), at his roosting hole in the center of the campground. This hole was located about twelve feet up in a live lodgepole pine. It was easily recognized as belonging to this bird because of the recent stripping of bark, forming a band about eighteen inches wide and nearly encircling the tree, at the same height as the hole. Only the male was seen, and he was usually gone all day.

Late in the morning of June 11, I waited for about an hour to see if there was any daytime activity, as I was hoping that this might be a nesting hole. The male finally came, pecking at the bark for two or three minutes before flying away again. No nesting there. I did hear and, after sneaking up the hill above the nest, see him giving the rapid, loud drumming on a dead branch of a tree which is usually associated with mating interests. This is the only record I have been able to find of a roosting hole in the park, and there is only one definite record of a nesting hole.

Soon after locating this hole, the high chatter of another woodpecker attracted my attention to a nesting hole located about thirty feet up in the dead, bleached-out snag of what seemed to be another lodgepole pine. The tree was standing within ten feet of the South Entrance road just across from the trailer court driveway. The bright red splotch of color on the top of this bird's head quickly identified him as a hairy woodpecker, presumably Dendrocopus villosus orius (Oberholser). It was apparently a nesting hole, but because of the unstableness of the tree I had to be satisfied with climbing an adjacent tree about eight feet away for observation and pictures.

After a long and uncomfortable wait, the male accommodated me by flying to the nest. On two occasions I saw the male chase away an inquisitive red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis L., which may also have wanted a nesting hole. Many days later, and after many observations of the hole and the active male, I saw the female for the first time. Her appearance seemed to coincide with the first peeping of the newly-hatched young, about June 20. Although I wasn't privileged to see all the family out of the nest at once, I took pictures of a nearly-grown male almost out of the hole on July 12, and from the noise within I would guess there were at least two other young. By July 19 there was no sign of the family at or near the hole.

June 17 I will long remember as the day I saw my first western pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus picinus (Bangs). This crow-sized, black bird with brilliant red crest and black-and-white striped neck swooped across the front of my car about four miles inside the park on the South Entrance road. He displayed his beauty while perched for a minute on a tree and then hurried away, giving his characteristic, loud, laughing cackle.

The very next day, while down in Annie Creek canyon near the South Entrance, I saw my first red-breasted sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius dagetti Grinnell, very active about the mountain ash, Sorbus sitchensis M. Roem., and the black cottonwood, Populus trichocarpa Torr. and Gray. Upon revisiting this locality a month later, both parents were dividing their attention between feeding two immature birds -- quite capable of flying around by themselves -- and drinking the sap or eating the insects attracted by the sap oozing from the characteristic rows of square holes which they had pecked in the bark of the mountain ash. The young were also concentrating on pecking the ooze, so much so that I could approach within a few feet.

A momentary distraction from woodpeckers was occasioned by the loud peeping of an immature water ouzel or American dipper, Cinclus mexicanus unicolor Bonaparte, who was also being fed, on a log in midstream. He could hardly constrain himself when one of the parents would fly up bringing some insect tidbit.

In this same locality I noticed a pair of red-shafted flickers, Colaptes cafer (Gmelin), another member of the woodpecker family. Since they were on the other side of the stream I couldn't check into their reason for favoring that particular area. They are the most conspicuous, if not the most abundant, woodpecker in the park, especially in the lower regions. On July 28, while escorting a field trip near the top of Garfield Peak Trail, I spotted one showing a brighter red than I had noticed before. On July 21 I saw a young flicker taking food from a parent about six miles inside the south boundary. While exploring Wizard Island for a few hours on August 6, I noticed what appeared to be a family group flying among the trees.

In order to round out my woodpecker experiences, I was eager to observe the fairly common Williamson sapsucker, Sphyrapicus thyroideus (Cassin), which is rather unusual in having a conspicuous contrast in color markings between the male and female. It was especially gratifying, then, to discover on July 12 a nesting hole containing young about forty feet up in a dead mountain hemlock near the Wineglass on the northeastern side of the lake. Both parents were in the feeding business and were quite disturbed when I scrambled up to look in the hole, even though I couldn't see the young.

The Lewis woodpecker, Asyndesmus lewis (Gray), is also fairly abundant in the park, especially late in the summer. Last year I noticed them first on August 31, traveling in small flocks near Garfield Peak. They were evidently attracted to the area by flying insects or ripening berries. Such post-breeding movements to higher areas are common here.

Other woodpeckers uncommonly observed in the park are the alpine three-toed woodpecker, Picoides tridactylus (L.), the white-headed woodpecker, Dendrocopos albolarvatus (Cassin), and the red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus varius nuchalis Baird.

Learning to recognize the members of a specific bird family and getting acquainted with their habits make a commonplace walk through the woods an adventure. Concentrating on the woodpeckers has guided my observations, and wherever I go I find a "family friend." Now, even old snags, instead of seeming dubiously attractive, are noticed and suggest a potential home or a source of food for an unusual bird.

Perhaps you would like to choose a particular group of birds to concentrate your attention upon for a while. Here in Crater Lake National Park, Dr. Donald S. Farner's The Birds of Crater Lake should prove an interesting and useful companion for your bird explorations.


Farner, Donald S. 1952. The Birds of Crater Lake National Park. Lawrence, University of Kansas Press. xi, 187 pp.

Gabrielson, Ira N., and Stanley G. Jewett. 1940. Birds of Oregon. Corvallis, Oregon State College Press. xxx, 650 pp.

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