Sunday, December 8, 2013

Los Angeles: Land of Woodpeckers?

Dear readers,

Here is the promised follow-up to my first post on Los Angeles birding about the area's wonderful woodpeckers.

You may be wondering how the desert wasteland I described in the last post is able to support wood-bearing trees, not to mention the advertised 'peckers. 

OK, I may have exaggerated the bleakness of the landscape a bit last time 'round.  There are actually plenty of trees in Los Angeles County and the woodpecker diversity surprised me.

Acorn Woodpecker, Los Angeles
One of the most ubiquitous is the charming Acorn Woodpecker, famous for caching acorns in tree-trunks. I don't know how they keep the squirrels at bay.  In the east, our Gray Squirrels would rob these poor birds blind as they do inevitably to just about all bird seed feeder-ers. 

Nuttall's Woodpecker, San Gabriel Mountains

And then there are the underrated Nuttal's Woodpeckers. I would say they are like the western equivalent of Downy woodpecker except that Downies are in California too (we saw one in the San Gabriel Mountains). 

Speaking of the San Gabiriel Mountains, the higher elevations are covered with some really pleasant parkland pine forests.  The trees seem to jut straight out of the bare rock in places and there's lots of space to stroll and see between the trunks. 

Up here we saw plenty of White-headed Woodpeckers.

White-headed Woodpecker, San Gabriel Mountains
And also the corvid that thinks it's a woodpecker, Clark's Nutcracker.
Clark's Nutcracker, San Gabriel Mountains
Or maybe it acts like a giant nuthatch?  Anyway I mentioned last time that it was a tossup between Corvids (the two scrub-jays, Steller's Jay, tame Ravens) and Woodpeckers for my favorite bird family of the trip.  And here I am blurring the lines again with this nutcracker!

But our best woodpecker moment came in one of those Los Angeles City Park, where we were able to sweep the North American sapsuckers.  In addition to the expected Red-breasted Sapsucker, this park also had a vagrant, like me, from the east: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker...

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker female, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar well as its very similar western cousin, the Red-naped Sapsucker...

Red-naped Sapsucker male, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
(come on, show us the nape!)

there's the red nape, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
(...there it is).

And the cherry on top was a female Williamson's Sapsucker.

Williamson's Sapsucker female, Veterans Memorial Park, Sylmar
A big thanks to local birder named Doug, who found all these sapsuckers and then came out to the park to meet us and help track them all down! 

Thus far I've omitted the most common woodpecker, partly because I didn't get a photo of it, but mainly because it will help segue into the next post.  The Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker is dramatically different than our eastern "Yellow-shafted" version, what with it's rosier shafts.  But these two superficially different birds are considered to make up one and the same "species," with intergrade/hybrids not all that difficult to find. 

In this "sport" we call birding, points are awarded based upon contemporary lists of species.  It's a flawed system to be sure and one of the tragic consequences is that subspecies often get ignored.  And even when birders go to the trouble to try to pick out the ones that can be readily discerned in the field, it's often still a hedge against a potential future "split" that might one day turn into the beloved "armchair tick."

Western subspecies, those birds that clearly look different than the eastern versions with which I am familiar, but don't "count," will be the theme of the next post.

Stay tuned!


  1. Hi Scott,
    I live in the Laurel Canyon section of the Hollywood Hills and I frequently hear the woodpecker sound when I hike in the area or have my windows and doors open. However, I can never find those birds. Any hints on how to spot these beautiful creatures? Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Usually woodpeckers are pretty conspicuous, though it can be difficult to locate the source of their tapping in dense woods.

      Look for movement along the trunks and branches and use binoculars. Also, some of these species are only common in the mountains and/or more intact natural areas, so you wouldn't be likely to find them around town.

      Keep looking though and being patient. I'm sure you'll eventually see some.

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  2. Hi, thanks for the blog! I have(had?) woodpeckers living in a parkway tree I believe is diseased. I need to call the county and my guess is they will remove the tree because it's dying. But I want to delay calling until I'm sure the baby woodpecker has moved out of the tree. What time of year might the nest be deserted? And one small correction to a common misconception, Los Angeles is not a desert. It is a Mediterranean region. I only mention it because people commonly plant desert plants here, which doesn't help our local birds, bees, butterflies, or moths. Thanks for your help!

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