Blipping the Radar of the Lewis's Woodpecker



After the better part of three days spent in near-ninty degree heat, the top photo on this page is all I have to show for the effort. This are not a great image of the Lewis’ Woodpecker, but it was the best allowed me for now. The Lewis’ Woodpecker deserves a full page here not for the quality of the photographs but for the cagey behavior I witnessed. These birds have radar and maybe infared detecton as well. Don’t ask me how they do it, but they know when you are within the range of whatever telephoto lens you brought and they stay just outside that range. I’ve persued and managed to get photos of some pretty cautious birds over the last few years, but the Lewis’ Woodpecker is the most perceptive and ellusive I’ve encountered.
      Just west of Yakima is Naches, Washington. Just west of Naches is a Fish and Wildlife natural area known as Oak Creek. This is where a tribe of Lewis’ Woodpeckers hang out in snags and trunks of trees left standing after a burn a few years back. You can see them without a problem from a couple hundred yards away, even driving down the washboard gravel road that runs along the creek. They seem to be ignoring you – but stop the car and get out and they vanish into the woodwork.
      Lewis’ Woodpeckers engages in some rather un-woodpecker-like behavior by catching flying insects in the air. They can be observed – from a distance – sitting out in the open on a post or limb, waiting for a dragonfly to venture too close. This rather large, crow-sized bird will catapult out like a nimble flycatcher to snatch the flying prey, then casually returns to its perch and crunch it down.
      After observing several fly-catching foreys by one paticular male, I decided to ground-crawl through the grass to where I would be close enough to his post perch for my 400mm lens to have a chance, and where I would still be well-hidded behind a pile of old sage trunks and limbs. There is no way I was visible crawling through the grass or after I reached the brush pile. Never-the-less, once I got there the Lewis’ was long gone. I waited about forty-five minutes, peaking over the brush every few minutes to see if the woodpecker was back. It never returned during that time, nor did I see it flying anywhere else. I finally stood up and walked away from the brush and the post he had use as his launching pad. I had walked no more than twenty yards when I caught a dark glimpse in the corner of my eye and turned to see him perched back on the post again, apparently now indifferent to my presence. We repeated this little performance three more time before I finally got enough sand in my shoes, mosquito bites, and thirst to give up. He would always be aware of my location, hidden or not, and he was prepared to wait forever until I was off his radar before resuming his station.


      The Lewis’ looks like a crow in flight – very dark and about the same size. Maybe they take on other attributes of these dark. cagy birds – crows and ravens – in their relationship to those of us who walk on two legs and carry telephoto lenses. They are wary, intelligent, and striking in appearance. If you can get close enough to see their iridescent body color and the deep red face feathers, you will be impressed. I can’t wait to go back and dance with them again.
      Footnote: A few days later I did get a fairly decent photograph (above) of a different Lewis’s Woodpecker down the road a ways. I guess this one had not talked to the other one. [back to Journal Index]


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