A Winter’s Walk with Woody

By Ken Marsh

A spruce bark beetle infestation across Southcentral Alaska in recent years has proven beneficial for regional woodpeckers. From Petersville to Palmer, Anchorage and beyond, infested trees have provided a year-round banquet for these sharp-billed birds.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers are most common around Anchorage, but a hike yesterday was highlighted by an encounter with a female American three-toed woodpecker, Picoides fasciatus. (Note: Until recently, these birds were call northern three-toed woodpeckers.) At a glance, the main difference between sexes is that adult males sport a bright yellow cap.

Yesterday’s female American three-toed woodpecker hunt for spruce bark beetle grubs in the bark of a white spruce tree near Anchorage, Alaska. ©Ken Marsh

Ranging from Alaska and the Yukon south to Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana, the American three-toed woodpecker is a smaller species with adults ranging from 8 to 9 1/2 inches in length — roughly the size of an American robin. They generally find food in and immediately under a tree’s outer bark, rarely driving deeply into the wood. Note the small holes and disturbed bark in these pictures to see woodpeckers have fed on this bark beetle-infested tree frequently.

A female northern three-toed woodpecker forages for bettles on a white spruce tree in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park.

Yesterday’s woodpecker proved a cooperative photographic model, allowing me to approach closely with a 70-200mm Canon lens in so-so light. Seeing shed life and sound to an otherwise silent winter day in Southcentral Alaska.

A female American three-toed woodpecker peeks around the trunk of a beetle-infested spruce tree.


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