Friday, February 1, 2008

In Pursuit of Lewis's Woodpecker

Tuesday, January 29: 2:00 p.m.

After leaving Lakeside Park I decide to give Reid Park a try. I have never been here before but the Tucson Rare Bird Alert has reported a Lewis’s Woodpecker on the northwest side of the park. I drive through a string of parking lots past Hi Corbet Field and park near the baseball diamonds. Before I even get out of the car I spot a Say's phoebe on a branch over a picnic table. I grab my gear from the car along with the D80 and sit on the closest picnic table in the sun. The sun’s rays bathe my skin in warmth as I eat my Scottish oatmeal scone and drink the milk I brought with me. This is my “lunch” for the day.

While I am sitting at the table a small bird flies into the mesquite tree beside me. It has similar coloring and shape to the phoebe that was here moments ago, but it is much lighter in color and smaller in form. It takes me but a moment to realize that I am looking at a female Vermilion flycatcher. She looks at me with her sweet dark eyes and cocks he head coyly. It’s as if she is posing for me as she turns on the branches first one way, then another. “Did you get a good shot from that angle,” she says. “How about this one? Do I look good in profile? How do you like my tangerine petticoats?” I snap off so many pictures of her. Then she sees something to eat, I suppose, for she flies to the ground in a flash, gives a spin and zip! Back up to the branch she came from. If she got something she swallowed it before I could see what it was!

I hear a ruckus overhead and look up to see a Harris hawk chasing another small hawk far above the tree tops. In a space between the leafy canopy I see another Harris hawk perched high in a eucalyptus tree. These trees grow rapidly around here, up to 5 feet a year I’ve been told, and their tall forms tower over the landscapes in the older parts of town. They have interesting bark that sheds leaving a smooth, bare trunk of dove gray with bits of the old bark still clinging to it. Their leaves are pale gray-green and shaped like a feather, long and narrow but with a rather thick stem that attaches them to the tree. Here at this corner of Reid Park there seem to be quite a few of them, along with pines and sycamores. Around the picnic area are smaller mesquite, Palo verdes and acacias. Palm trees and bushes define the north boundary and separate it from a residential street beyond. Along this hedgerow I see house finches, mourning doves and a few white-crown sparrows feeding.

I walk about under the tall trees craning my neck upwards with binoculars poised and camera at the ready. Though a slight breeze ruffles my hair every now and then, I am quite comfortable in a short –sleeved shirt and long pants. I find yellow-rumped warblers twittering in the pines, along with ruby-crowned kinglets. A flash of red flies past and land on a pine branch-a male vermilion fly catcher! Then another! Before I am done I will have counted 5 vermillion fly catchers in this area of the park.

I see and hear Gila woodpeckers as they flit about from tree to tree. In the nearby ball fields teams are playing but they are silent to me. All I hear are birds and rustling leaves. I am subconsciously aware of city workers grinding up branches in a wood chipper at the far west border of the park, but they are not part of my world which I dive into even deeper as I see a dark flash swoop overhead. It has the characteristic shape and flight of a woodpecker, but this one is very dark on its back with a white collar, a pink belly and a red face! I drop my jar and swing my camera up to try to catch a photo of the prize I have been waiting for, a Lewis’s Woodpecker! He flies to the top bare branches of a eucalyptus tree. He is so far up there that even though I zoom in far I know I will have to greatly enlarge the picture and he will still be a small green dot, but I am hopeful and try anyways. Apparently he is shy, for he flies off to the north side of a palm tree and hides stealthily in the shadows. We play a game of cat and mouse till finally I decide I’ve got enough pictures. I lean against a pine tree and just watch this elusive creature. I discover that he clings to the palm tree differently than a Gila would. His toes are long and dark. He arches them up and clings with his long toenails. When seen in silhouette like I am seeing it now, it gives the impression of a lacy filigree against the light gray trunk. A Gila woodpecker would have a more flat-footed stance. The Lewis’s appears to be up on its toes, like some feathered ballerina in an exotic production. I suppose that description fits with its red face, pink belly and dark green feathered back that looks like a cape. It reminds me of the Phantom of the Opera during the masquerade scene. He certainly has the red mask and to me he is a phantom bird!

When I finally decide it’s time to leave this section of the park the female vermillion fly catcher flies in for one more photo session. I gratefully oblige her before getting into my car. As I drive down the west side parking lot I am surprised to discover a whole other section on the south side of the ball fields with two ponds, a rose garden and a play area, sculptures and fountains. I can’t resist exploring here also and come away with more birds to add to my list, including a small flock of Inca doves. It has been a really good day of birding.

Big January: 79. Lewis' Woodpecker, 80. Red-naped sapsucker, 81. Redhead, 82. Inca Dove


Mary said...


The stories you tell are so good. You relate to the birds well. I'd love to have them greet me the way they do you!

Great photos. I like coming here because of the variety you show.


Patrice said...

Hi Kathi,
What fun to follow your birding adventures! I could almost feel the Arizona sun warming my cold winter bones. Thanks for stopping by.

Larry said...

You are really seeing some great birds! You are making wish that spring would come sooner so that I can see some migrants.

Veery said...

Vermilion Flycatchers! How wonderful. Congratulations on the Lewis's Woodpecker too.

Good birding to you!

Kathie Brown said...

Mary, I love having you visit. You always make such nice comments and you are so supportive of others. I really like your Blog also. It is very creative and you also have wonderful pictures!

Patrice, how nice to hear from you! I got a bit of a tan birding on Saturday, but today we have snow! I will have to stop by for my quote of the day.

Larry, I hope to get my results up soon. I started to write my post yesterday but then had to leave for a Superbowl party. However on the way we stopped to see a bird from the Tucson Rare Bird Alert. Wait 'til you see what we saw! Posting coming soon!

Veery, thanks for stopping by! We have had excellent birding the last few days. I can't write fast enough!