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Canyon Notes

A Brown-backed Tree Hugger

By Karen McBride

Our bird of the month is another that is high on the want lists of birders from other parts of the U.S. and the world. It lives only in the mountains of Southeastern Arizona and a tiny part of Southwestern New Mexico . One of the easiest places to find it is in Madera Canyon , and often near the Santa Rita Lodge and the waterfall at the Chuparosa Inn.
I still remember the first time I ever saw one. I was strolling along the trail from the Proctor Parking Area when the path made a sharp left turn to parallel the creek, crossed over a small bridge, and took me under a very large tree. Something plopped at my feet—a big square piece of bark. Just above me was a very brown woodpecker, busily prying off the bark to get at insects beneath. Little pieces were plopping all around me.
Back then, the bird was called “Strickland's Woodpecker.” Before that, it was called “Arizona Woodpecker,” and now it's called “Arizona Woodpecker” again as it has been decided that the Strickland's Woodpecker lives in the mountains of Mexico , and the Arizona , in Arizona . Makes sense to me!
The 7-1/2" Arizona Woodpecker ( Picoides arizonae ) is the only species of woodpecker in the U.S. and Canada that is brown and white and not black and white. The upperparts are solid brown; the forehead and crown are brown and the face is white with a large, brown cheek patch, creating a white eyebrow, a white line from the bill to the neck, and a large, white neck patch. The tail is dark brown-black with some white barring on the outer feathers, and the underparts are white but heavily spotted and barred with brown. Males and females are similar except that the male has a red patch on the back of the crown. A brown bird on a brown tree can be really hard to see, but you will usually hear his sharp “Peek!” sound or a hoarse whinny when you get close.
This stocky, dark “woody” lives in oak or pine-oak forests near streams or rivers, mostly between 4,900 and 5,500 feet. Because of competition with Hairy Woodpeckers that nest at higher elevations, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers that nest lower, the Arizona Woodpecker is restricted to this narrow elevational range. And because of its very limited range and small overall population in the southwestern United States , and its dependency on healthy oak and riparian forests, Cornell University and the National Audubon Society consider it a species of concern, but it has been so little studied that its population dynamics and threats are not well understood.

The Arizona Woodpecker's diet probably consists largely of insect larvae, with some fruit and acorns, and it often forages near the ground, flying from higher in a tree to the base of the next tree and working up the trunk onto smaller branches. It excavates nest holes in the dead branches of living trees, primarily walnuts, oaks, maples, and sycamores, but sometimes in large agave stalks. This is the time of year when you should see pairs, working together on their nest holes, the male drumming and tapping near the hole or doing a fluttery gliding display flight toward the female. You can see them all year long, but now is when they are the noisiest. Good birding



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