This Lewis’s Woodpecker was hunting insects, flycatcher style, near Market Lake WMA May, 2022.
Even from 200 yards away, I suspected that the bird ahead of us on the road on the west side of Market Lake WMA last month was a woodpecker. With that in mind, it was easy to quickly identify the bird as we drew closer. “It’s a Lewis’s woodpecker!” I exclaimed. Skeptical, my wife quizzed me. “Are you sure it isn’t a flicker?” Afterall, despite the many days we have spent at Market Lake, we had never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker there. In fact, I have only seen one on three other occasions: once near Salmon, and twice on the Camas Prairie near Carey. But even before she had her question completely formed, I nodded an affirmative yes, I was sure.
This large bird, one of the largest woodpeckers in Idaho at 10-11 inches, is hard to mis-identify. It has a rosy pink belly, dark green (sometimes looking black in dull light) back and head, light gray neck collar and chest, spiky black tail and red face. It has the customary stout bill and the standard landing gear, two toes forward and two pointing backward, a.k.a., zygodactyl toes, of a woodpecker.
From there though, it diverges rather strongly from even its close cousins. Woodpeckers, along with finches and sparrows, usually follow a flight pattern called, undulating flight. This up-and -down pattern looks something like the bird is on a roller coaster—the birds flap their wings to rise up and then either glide, wings out, or bound, wings folded, as they descend into the valley—up and down. Lewis’s woodpeckers, on the other hand, have a broader wing and their flight is more of a steady flapping that is often compared to that of a crow.
Most woodpeckers obtain a substantial amount of their food by digging into living and dead trees to harvest the insects hidden in the wood. Not so, the Lewis’s woodpecker. This bird forages more like a flycatcher, sitting on a perch and watching for prey then launching to catch the insect in flight. Acorn woodpeckers and flickers also occasionally capture prey this way, but for the Lewis’s it is a way of life (they also pick lots of insects off the surface of trees).
On wintering grounds well to the south, they will also cache foods, especially acorns and other nuts. They will defend these caches from robbers such as acorn woodpeckers with bold displays and attacks.
Finally, keeping with its seeming aversion toward pecking at trees, Lewis’s woodpeckers do not normally excavate their own nesting cavity. They will use natural cavities or those constructed by other woodpeckers, sometimes enlarging and improving them.
The Lewis’s woodpecker is truly a western species and is a bird of open forests and burns with lots of standing wood. Lewis’s woodpeckers summer in Western and Northern Idaho, Western Montana, across Wyoming, in a small area in northern Nevada, parts of eastern Oregon and Washington and the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is puzzling that we don’t see them more often, but they do seem to prefer stands of Ponderosa pine which aren’t found in Eastern Idaho. They will use other forest types too, so long as they are fairly open, and the range map shows that they can be found in the northeast corner of Fremont County, adjacent to Yellowstone, as well.
At best, Lewis’s woodpeckers are uncommon and numbers have declined by about 48 percent between 1968 and 2019. The organization, Partners in Flight, gives them a “Continental Concern Score” of 15 out of 20, “placing them on the Yellow Watch List for birds most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.”
I may be just unlucky in finding Lewis’s woodpeckers or I might frequent the wrong habitats. However, when there are only an estimated 42,000 pairs throughout their range, I suspect that not being able to see them isn’t just my problem.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho