Sunday, May 10, 2015

Nuttall's Woodpecker-- Picoides nuttallii

 Male Nuttall's Woodpecker--Mike & Chris, Wikipedia

The Nuttall's Woodpecker is a woodpecker that is found almost exclusively in California.  Nuttall's live year-round in a very  limited range.  Mostly in the western part of California with a slight dip into the northwest area of Baja California in Mexico.  There have been accidental sightings in Nevada and southern Oregon.  But for the most part Nuttall's Woodpeckers are California birds. 

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker.  Notice there are two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward.  Photographer "Mike" Michael L. Baird, Wikipedia

The Nuttall's appearance is very close to the Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  There will  be several factors in your determination of which one you are observing.  First is the location.  Nuttall's live year-round in a limited range mostly in the western part of California.  So if you see one outside that range, observe, document, and try to get a picture because it is highly unlikely, and other birders will be skeptical.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker on a cactus.  Note there is no thick stripe at the Shoulder.  (Photographer Alan D. Wilson,

Habitat is another key to identifying the species.  The Nuttall's Woodpecker likes woodlands--either oak woodlands or riparian woodlands.  The Nuttall's likes trees and streams and lakes.  Or at least trees that grow in moister areas.  On the other hand, the old name for the Ladder-backed Woodpecker is the "Cactus Woodpecker."  And that tells you about the Ladder-backed Woodpecker's proclivity for drier habitats.  It lives in the desert areas of California such as the Antelope Valley of Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, and in San Bernardino County.  The Ladder-back is usually found in the drier habitat the cacti, the Joshua tree, the mesquite.  The Nuttall's is in the shadier, moister habitat out in the eucalyptus, the oak, and the cultivated trees in the park.  The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a desert bird with a much larger list of states in its range: California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas.  Its range also extends down into Mexico as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula with some localized sightings down as far south as the Republic of Nicaragua.  To find both the Nuttall's and the Ladder-backed Woodpeckers you would need to find both their habitats together in one place.  Big Morongo in San Bernardino County is one of the few places where you will find both species, but you will almost never find the Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Orange County. 

Female Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright).

The other thing that will help you decide if it is a Ladder-backed Woodpecker or Nuttall's Woodpecker is the thick, black stripe at the top of the back stripes.  Notice that in the picture above, even though her head is turned, you can still make out that the top stripe is a much wider, black bar than the rest of the back stripes.  This is is key to identifying the Nuttall's Woodpecker.  The Ladderbacked Woodpecker does not have the thick, black bar at the shoulders.   Check out the illustration below.  The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is the upper illustration.

Comparison of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker (upper image) and Nuttall's Woodpecker (lower image).  Courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior

Notice in the illustration above of the male of each species, the upper image of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker has no thick stripe at the shoulders and that the male Ladder-backed Woodpecker has some small red spots on the head.   The male Nuttall's has a thick terminal stripe at the shoulders and only small white spots on the head.  

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park (west side).  The tail feathers help with balance.
(Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

In Orange County, if you find what you think is a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, document, document, document--and take lots of pictures, because you just don't find them often if at all in Orange County.  Now if you go into Riverside, San Bernardino, Mojave, then yes, there you are likely to see a Ladder-backed, but not in Orange County.

Female Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park.  Notice the thick, black terminal band at the shoulders.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright).
Huntington Central Park is one of the many areas in Orange County where you can see a Nuttall's Woodpecker.   They breed here.  Nuttall's Woodpeckers are all over the east side of Huntington Central Park in the area between the garden and the lake.   You will also find them in the area up from the parking lot in the pepper trees adjacent to the library parking lot to the east of the library, and in the eucalyptus near the bathroom as you follow the higher path rather than going down toward the lake and the garden.  You will also find Downy Woodpecker's in the same areas.  Downy Woodpeckers are easily differentiated from the Nuttall's Woodpecker.  The smaller Downy Woodpeckers have a large white area in the middle of their back which is easy to differentiate from the Nuttall's striped back.  Downy's are less associated with oak woodlands.  

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright).  See the thick, black bar across his shoulders?

Nuttall's Woodpeckers are all over the east and west side of Huntington Central Park.  On the east side of the park in the area between the garden and the lake. I hear them often.  You will also find Downy and Northern Flickers in that same area.   But there is no confusing them with Nuttall's. 

 Female Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park.
(Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

Nuttall's Woodpeckers are cavity nesters.  They chip out a hole in a tree and set up housekeeping.  The males do the main excavation work.

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker.  Huntington Central Park.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

The bird above is obviously a male as indicated by the red on the back of the head to the nape.  (Be aware though that juvenile female Nuttall's may have some scattered red feathers on the head.)  This Nuttall's started low to ground on the eucalyptus tree which was back a bit from the pathway.   It then worked its way up.  Nuttall's Woodpeckers eat mostly insects such as beetles and ants with a small amount of fruit, seeds, and flowers.  They also include caterpillars, a few spiders and other creepy crawlers in their diet.  Woodpeckers often start low to the ground in the less traveled areas of this and other parks.  Nuttall's often move quickly sometimes moving around the trunk and upward.  Frequent flights to other parts of the tree or to another tree are common.

Female Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park
(Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)
While birding between rainstorms in Huntington Central Park, I saw a Nuttall's vigorously bathing in a rain puddle. 

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker in Huntington Central Park
(Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

The Nuttall's has not been studied as much as the Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  But we do know quite a bit of information.  When looking for the Nuttall's, listen because it often calls its loud, rattling call as it flies from tree to tree. 

Male Nuttall's Woodpecker.  Huntington Central Park.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

There are recorded instances of Downy-Nuttall's hybrids and unsurprisingly Nuttall's-Ladder-backed hybrids in California at large, and specifically in Orange County by very reliable sources. But these are rare, and again a case in which if you find such a bird, you should document, document, document.  And say exactly where you found it so others can try to confirm.  There is no offense in this.  Science is all about being able to duplicate findings. 

Even from the side, you can see the broad black band at the shoulders.
Male Nuttall's Woodpecker.  Huntington Central Park.  (Photographer, Karen McQuade, copyright)

The oakland and riparian woodlands are great places to bird.  Have fun birding in Orange County, and look and listen for Nuttall's woodpeckers.  They seem to be everywhere. 

  Where to find Nuttall's Woodpeckers

Here are a few areas where you will find Nuttall's Woodpeckers in Orange County, but not the only areas in Orange County. Nuttall's Woodpeckers can be found anywhere there are trees in Orange County.

Huntington Central Park

Mason Regional Park

Mile Square Regional Park

Clark Regional Park

Yorba Regional Park

Carbon Canyon Regional Park

Laguna Niguel Regional Park

Irvine Regional Park

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Upper Newport Bay

O'Neill Regional Park

Oak Canyon Nature Center

OC Birder Girl Links

Woodpeckers of Orange County, California

Acorn Woodpeckers

Resources and Links

All About Birds--Nuttall's Woodpecker

Audubon Guide to North American Birds--Nuttall's Woodpecker

The picture is very big, and you might not see the text.  Page down on the Audubon Guide page to read the article about the Nuttall's Woodpecker. 

Birds in Forested Landscapes--Nuttall's Woodpecker 

Birds of North America--Nuttall's Woodpecker

The Internet Bird Collection: Nuttall's Woodpecker

Videos and photographs of Nuttall's Wookpeckers.

Macaulay Library--Nuttall's Woodpecker

Audio and video recordings.

National Geographic--Nuttall's Woodpecker

Xeno-Canto--Sharing Bird Sounds from around The World: Nuttall's Woodpecker

Listen until you recognize the call.