Hellz Yeah! They rock my world.
What can I say? I just plain love woodpeckers. They're fascinating to watch, and just plain good looking birds. They don't always choose to reveal themselves, clinging to the highest treetops, but sometimes they'll get front and center at a feeder or an eye-level branch.
The bird in the swirling mists is a Pileated Woodpecker, North America's largest woodpecker (unless someone manages to find the elusive Ivory-billed). Here's one that was a bit more visible.
Pileated Woodpeckers are found coast to coast, but not in the southern/southwestern part of the US. Other woodpeckers are even more widespread, like the Hairy Woodpecker, found almost everywhere except the southwestern desert areas.
Field guides say that you can separate the larger Hairy from its smaller cousin the Downy Woodpecker (below) by the three dots barely visible on the Downy's outer tail feathers (compare with the Hairy's solid white above). That can be hard to see in the field, so I find it much easier to tell them apart by their bills. Look at the Hairy's honkin' hammer, compared to the Downy's darling dinger.
But speaking of those tails... that's one adaptation woodpeckers have for their arboreal lifestyle. You'll notice that their tails are fairly short and mostly black, especially the center feathers. That's because the melanin that colors black feathers also gives them strength and stiffness. They use these stiff feathers to brace themselves against trunks as they climb, and the feathers also resist wear much better than something lighter colored. Check out the Acorn Woodpecker below - she doesn't need a climbing belt to get up this phone pole.
One more Acorn, just because I really like them a lot. ( ">
That guy (and he is a guy, because the red meets the white on the front of his crown; on a female there's some black in between) has the typical woodpecker color combo - mostly black and white, with a shot of red and maybe a splash of yellow. It's a good look for a headbanger, but some go their own sartorial way. Like the Lewis' Woodpecker, resplendent in green-black, with a grey neck-wrap and a flashy pink belly.
Unconventional, but they can pull off the look.
Then there's the Northern Flicker, who's got more of a folk vibe, all beiges and earth-tones with a bit of handprinted patterns going on, and that dark scarf.
Our western flickers like to accent with a bit of red in the feathers, but eastern birds prefer golden tones.
Some go even more minimal in the color combo, like this female White-headed Woodpecker (photographed by Walter Kitundu and used with permission) - who needs color at all?
Although White-headed Woodpeckers do sometimes have a little bit of color... a dab of red at the back of the head like the male outside this nest cavity, or a red cap like the fledgling inside.
Ever wonder what one of those cavities looks like inside? After all, thats one of the main purposes of those super powerful bills - to excavate cavities so they have a safe place to raise their families. (And in subsequent years, all sorts of other birds make use of the holes to raise their families.) This is the inside of a White-headed Woodpecker nest hole in Yosemite, a few months after the family finished using it.
Acorn Woodpeckers drill holes in tree bark (and phone poles and siding) to stash away acorns as a food source to carry them through the year. These community granaries can hold tens of thousands of acorns across several trees.
Woodpecker's skulls are extra strong to take all that banging. In another adaptation, they have freakishly long tongues that wrap around their the back of their skulls and anchor in their nostrils. They extend their tongues into the holes they're drilling (like this Flicker) so they can extract their food.
Another feeding strategy is used by the sapsuckers like the Red-breasted Sapsucker below - they drill hundreds of small wells in the bark of trees and drink the sap that flows to the surface (and eat the occasional insect attracted to the wells). If you ever come across a tree that looks like it has a pattern of ritual scarring, think of it as the headbangers' tree tattoos.
This whole diary came about because I was finally able to get a decent photo (not an awesome photo, but a decent photo) of a Williamson's Sapsucker at Yosemite last weekend. I've only seen them a handful of times and always at ridiculous distances. This juvenile did not have the same trust issues. In fact, my biggest problem was that several times he flew in too close for photos.