Feb 27, 2010: Today we’re hiking on a different lane on the Dunning Ranch, the Blacktail Basin Road. Blue sky. Cottonball clouds. Shirtsleeve temperatures. Even a few butterflies. At this time of year I crave the sunshine. If only the ground was dry. I’d spread eagle on the warm ground and soak up even more sunshine.
Lots of Lewis Woodpeckers are still wintering here. One darts out from a high perch and loops back, apparently catching bugs on the wing. A Coopers hawk soars ahead of us. When we approach that area, he flushes out of a tangle of bushes, carrying prey in his talons.
Nature frequently hands us little surprises. Last December we had the good fortune to watch a foraging downy woodpecker from just a few feet away. It was a damp, grey winter day and the little woodpecker was much more interested in tearing apart a dead twig on a dying bush than he was in us. I suspect he was finding a wealth of small grubs or insect eggs inside the old stem.
After we got home I read up on the natural history of downy woodpeckers. The first facts didn’t come as a surprise: they are the smallest and most widespread woodpecker in North America. But I also found they had succeeded in keeping a funny little secret from me: downys are an excellent example of differential niche use by the sexes of a species. Or, in simpler terms, the male dines separately from the female. Male downy woodpeckers usually forage in the small upper twigs of trees, or in bushy areas down below. The female forages on the thicker stems and trucks of trees. I had never noticed this difference, but I resolved to watch more carefully in the future. Only the male sports a bright red patch of feathers on the back of his head, so the sexes are easy to tell apart.
Here, at the Dunning Ranch, is another downy, also a male. The little woodpecker is busy foraging first in the top one oak and then another and another. When he tires of the little oak grove, he flies off and disappears into a blackberry thicket – just as if he has read the same book I did.