A Song for May 24

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Click the sonogram to hear and see the sound.

Upper Diener Canyon is actually a valley, a V-shaped crease in the PreCambrian bedrock at 8,000 feet on the flanks of Mt. Sedgwick, highest point in the Zuni Mountains. Its norther-facing slopes, steep but walkable, were once green with douglasfir and pine. Now they are black with the charred spires left by a hot fire in 2018. This is the habitat of the American Three-toed Woodpecker, and a sound suggestive of that species emanates from far up the slope. The footing is loose on the steep slope, the organic material all oxidized, the mineral soil that is left almost as coarse as sand. Patient use of switchbacks gets me to the bird.

I find a three-toed, but it is not the drummer. It is a female. And then there is another female, and finally I see the drummer, too, a male. The two females are interacting with calls, the the male drumming away stolidly, off to himself. This may be their world, but little else is to be seen or heard here. No conifer seedlings have yet sprouted. A few flowering plants. A very few birds; you can hear them all, a warbler, a robin, a pewee. You can hear the wind, even though there are no pine needles to move with it. You can hear the wing-beats of the woodpeckers as they change trees. You can hear their feet hitching up a trunk, their quiet exploratory taps for beetle larvae, which are here, or the woodpeckers wouldn't be. Three-toeds are vagabonds. After a forest burns, they appear. They must do a lot of prospecting. Do they have a special sense for smoke or cinders that we don't know about?

When a human drummer plays a solo is it a "song?" I'll leave the answer to the musicologists. Does a woodpecker's banging its beak, and head, against a treetrunk constititute a song? Yes, if it is stereotyped, repetitive, and conspicuous. All three boxes checked for some of the sounds above. Drumming is in fact the way woodpeckers sing. Most species of birds can be told apart by their songs. It is not necessarily so for woodpecker drums, but this species has the slowest drumbeat of all (Pieplow west, page 233). And, on top of that, it accelerates. So, when driving through one of the numerous burns around western North America, stop and listen for a slow, but accelerating drumbeat. You might have a three-toed.

Other Goodies from May 24

Western Tanager (2019)
Canyon Towhee (2019)

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