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Nature On Trail: Woodpeckers

By Lauren Braden
Woodpeckers are fascinating creatures that sport strong, pointed beaks that noisily chisel holes and remove bark. Their tongues are freakishly long—up to four inches in some species—with a sticky substance on the tip for catching insects in deep crevices. Their strong claws and stiff tails help prop them up when perched on tree trucks foraging for insects and larvae.

You may presume woodpeckers do damage to trees, but woodpeckers are generally good for tree health because they feed so heavily on wood-boring beetles. Washington hosts a whopping thirteen species of woodpeckers. Some, like the ant-loving northern flicker and the cute downy woodpecker, are commonly found in urban parks and backyards.  Others are much more specific to certain habitats, and can be quite hard to find. For the inquisitive hiker, however, it can be done. 

Pileated Woodpeckers are the largest woodpeckers in North America (assuming the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is no longer with us, that is) and produce the loudest drumming. They are the size of a crow and mostly black, with white stripes on their faces and necks underwing linings, and bright red pointed crests, which give a comical look to them. They use their powerful bills to forage for insects —look for their characteristic rectangular excavations in the trucks of trees. A fairly common resident in mature forests west of the Cascades, they are less common on the east side.

Black-Backed Woodpecker

Two of the most-sought woodpeckers for birders to catch a glimpse of are the black-backed woodpecker and its close cousin, the three-toed woodpecker. Black-backed woodpeckers breed in mature conifer forests of fir, pine, spruce, larch and hemlock. Their black backs make them rather inconspicuous, but their loud foraging taps and drumming may alert you to their presence. A few years back I spotted a pair of these low on a tree truck not ten feet from the Snow Lake Trail on my way up to the Enchantments. Hikers should look for them at moderate to high elevations east of the Cascade crest, and down in the Ponderosa pine zone after forest fires have swept through. They are strongly attracted to burns and arrive within a few months of fires for their favorite food —wood-boring beetle larvae.

The three-toed woodpecker prefers denser forests at elevations from about 4,000 feet up to tree line. Some good places to look for this hard-to-find species are Harts Pass, in the silver-fir forests near White Pass, and in the Thunder Mountain burn in Okanogan County.

The acorn woodpecker is rare in Washington, found only in oak country or areas where oaks are interspersed with other types of trees. Washington is at the extreme northern edge of the breeding range of this bird, and they are currently found only in Klickitat County.  It can be seen along the Klickitat River in Lyle or at nearby Balch Lake.

Each time I hike in Umtanum Canyon, I see numerous Lewis’s woodpeckers, which at first always trick me into thinking they are crows with their flapping flight, characteristically different from the undulating flight of other woodpeckers.  Lewis’s woodpeckers are large, unusual-looking woodpeckers with dark iridescent green-black backs, pink undersides, gray breasts and collars, and red faces rimmed with black.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Washington has four species of sapsuckers, woodpeckers that drill little holes, often in a straight line pattern, in tree trunks of live trees.  Sapsuckers return to the holes to feed on the running sap and the insects attracted to that sap. Hikers have a good chance of seeing the most uncommon of these, the Williamson’s sapsucker, which prefer elevations above 3,000 feet each of the Cascade crest, especially larch forests such as those in the Okanogan and Methow Valleys, or around Stampede Pass.