By Katie O’Hara Kelly
To my absolute delight, I came across an active Black-backed Woodpecker nest this week! It was in plain view, right off a hiking trail in the Lakes Basin! A pair of adults was feeding nestlings in a nest! The nestlings weren’t visible, but they would make a loud “churring” sound whenever a parent landed near the nest hole! The adults were definitely annoyed by my presence, and made loud protesting, aggravated calls if I lingered. So I only stayed long enough to get a few photos, and then left the area. Black-backed Woodpeckers are very uncommon in the Lakes Basin. It was such a thrill to see them!!!
Black-backed Woodpeckers are primarily found in the cold climate coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska, and in southward extensions of these forests into the northern Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range. They prefer to feed on wood-boring beetle larvae in burned forests, but will also feed on beetle larvae in dying/unburned trees. The practice of logging burned areas has negatively impacted their population, by depriving them of foraging and breeding habitat. In California they will live year-round in the higher elevations, but are not commonly seen.
Unique to these woodpeckers, are their three toed feet (most birds have four toes), the common practice of peeling the bark away from the area that surrounds the nest hole (they don’t always do this, as evidenced in the photo above), and the yellow patch of feathers on the top of the male woodpecker’s head (most woodpeckers have a patch of red feathers).
The male does most of the nest excavation. Both parents share in the incubation, and subsequent care and feeding of the nestlings. The nestlings will leave the nest approximately three weeks after they hatch. Parents will care for the fledglings for several more weeks after they fledge. I hope to come back in a week or so, to see if any nestlings are poking their heads out of the nest!
Another uncommon sighting happened this week when we came across newly emerged Sugar Stick flowers. These flowers aren’t that common in the Lakes Basin, but they aren’t considered rare. We have found one area where they have predictably blossomed every year. Usually, we see them when they have gone to seed, and are maroon and navy-blue in color. This week, when we found them, they were newly emerged and in their bright red-and-white coloring!
It turns out that these plants are in the same plant family (Heath – Ericaceae) as Snow Plants and Pinedrops, and do not produce chlorophyll. They are mycoheterotrophs, and are parasitic on the mycelia of fungi, specifically Matsutake fungus mycelium!
This is one of my absolute favorite areas in the Lakes Basin! Surprisingly, the wet meadow was still a bog and barely in bloom! I’m going back again in a few weeks, to see what wildflowers will be blooming!
Wishing for peace in Ukraine and an immediate end to this senseless war!