Mixed Woodpecker Flocks in an Alaskan Burn

by Bryce W. Robinson

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Male Black-backed Woodpecker working his way through a burn near Willow, Alaska. 

My friends Luke, Charlie, Linnaea and I recently visited a year old burn site near Willow, Alaska. Our purpose for the visit was to find a rarely encountered woodpecker species, the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arctics). Luke had visited the site a year prior, only about a month after the burn, and found quite a few woodpeckers already foraging on the burned spruce. We were hoping to have the same luck.

When we reached the burn, we took a few roads that led towards the location Luke had luck in the year prior. While driving I noticed tan bark chippings flecked off of the charred trees, a sure sign of foraging woodpeckers.

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Downy Woodpecker foraging on a burnt spruce.

We set out on foot down a two track that led into a portion of the forest. Only two hundred meters down the track we heard woodpeckers. We first heard a Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), but soon after came the husky call of a Black-backed. We quickly had visual, and soon after had others. Multiple Black-backed Woodpeckers, the magic of the burn.

The flock foraged along through the forest, much like a winter passerine flock foraging through deciduous groves. Soon the birds had gone, and we continued down the track only to find more woodpeckers.

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Hairy Woodpecker foraging low on a burnt spruce.

We counted many individuals. At one point we were surrounded by Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens). Other birds joined the flock, including White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), Myrtle’s Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata), and Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla). It was interesting to watch the woodpeckers interact with the passerines. Many times the Myrtle’s Warblers would chase the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Mixed flocks are excellent. Even more, a mixed flock is a symbol of fire ecology and the importance of natural fire cycles for many species, particularly Black-backed Woodpecker. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the photos I really wanted of the birds and their foraging behaviors. I’ll make it back to the burn soon, hopefully to film some behaviors as well. That way I can fully portray the importance of burns for these birds, and the excellent behavior of flecking bark in search of food.

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