Even non-birders have at least a passing knowledge of woodpeckers – except perhaps those living in Australasia or Madagascar, where this order is absent. Even there, the presence of Woody Woodpecker likely has made its mark.
And of the 179 or so species worldwide of woodpeckers, all but a handful – perhaps a half-dozen – bear, amongst at least the males, diagnostic red on the head: a cap or crest, a mustache mark, a gular stripe. In North America, it is only the two species of three-toed woodpeckers – aptly named in contradistinction to the four toes other members of the order possess – who sport no red.
Rather, the males wear a yellow crown. Alaska is home to both the black-backed and the northern three-toed woodpeckers. The former is more often seen than the latter in eastern North America; in Alaska it is closely associated with outbreaks of spruce budworm and with forest fires, usually becoming locally very common some three to five years after a conflagration. The northern three-toed (at present, also called simply “three-toed woodpecker”) is more general in its occurrence throughout Alaska’s taiga.
Fortunately for the photographer, this bird is not overly shy. It seems to have a preference for the lowermost sections of a spruce, which allow for gratifying shots from above and often sparing the photographer the stiff neck that often accompanies bird photography. Rarely is the woodpecker common, though, and it was with great pleasure for me that the male depicted here stayed around the large spruce adjacent to our house’s deck for some weeks late this autumn.
A characteristic behavior of this bird is that it is one species I have learned to be able to identify by sound. That is, NOT by call or song, but by the diagnostic noise created by its gleaning. Rather than the drilling, often in staccato fashion, which is so prevalent amongst most other woodpeckers, the three-toed typically scrapes, or flakes, pieces of bark off spruces in its quest for beetles and their larvae. One would not be amiss in calling both species three-toed woodflakers rather than woodpeckers.