This fall Leonard and I are seeing birds in our yard (Modoc County CA) for the first time in forty years or birds that we have only seen once or twice before during those years. (Leonard especially keeps a very close watch for birds.) We do not know whether it is because of the severe, ongoing drought here in Northeastern California (indeed, all of California), climate change or some other causative factor. Whatever the reason, these sightings are very unusual.
All summer Leonard and I lamented that there were no Lewis’s woodpeckers in the spots we normally could find them. What had caused their disappearance? Lewis’s woodpecker numbers are declining (over 50% since 1966) throughout their range, but their sudden vanishing act had us puzzled. Then unexpectedly a Lewis’s woodpecker (Melenerpes lewis) appeared in the cottonwoods next to our house – a bird that we have never seen on our property before. Exciting, yet baffling.
Lewis’s woodpeckers, named after Meriweather Lewis, are found west of the Great Plains. Some are permanent residents while others move to lower elevations during the winter or migrate short distances. Lewis’s woodpeckers are often irruptive (see Irruptive Species 11/14/2012), shifting their wintering grounds in response to food availability.
Although Lewis’s woodpeckers breed in varied habitats with open canopy, bushy understory, suitable perches and abundant insects, they generally are associated with a) ponderosa pine forests, b) open riparian woodlands with cottonwoods or oaks and c) logged or burned pine forests.
A medium-sized woodpecker, the monotypic (males and females look the same) Lewis’s is easy to distinguish from other woodpeckers. It has a greenish-black head, back and wings. There are no white marking on the back, wings or tail. The grey breast extends around the neck in a collar. The face is dark red while the belly is reddish or pinkish.
Lewis’s woodpeckers are unlike most woodpeckers in that they do not excavate trees in search of wood-boring insects. The Lewis’s is an aerial forager, sitting on the top of a pole or dead tree from which it hawks (catches on the wing) flying insects. It also gleans insects from the surface of tree leaves, branches and trunks. In addition to insects, Lewis’s woodpeckers will eat acorns and other nuts, berries and other fruits. They will store acorns in rock cracks and crevices. I watched “our” Lewis’s woodpecker eat cottonwood buds and hawk insects.
Vocally silent for a woodpecker, the Lewis’s also drums infrequently and then only a few weak taps.
Leonard and I are delighted to have this rare visitor.