I have accidentally made some woodpeckers famous. A couple of winters ago, I took a van-load of birders north into Maine’s working forest. It was a field trip sponsored by the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon. We had high hopes of finding a multitude of crossbills and finches that inhabit Maine’s spruce forests above Millinocket.
We didn’t find any. Many finches are irruptive, coming to Maine only when we have more food in the woods than Canada has. Finches often descend on an area and devour the cone crop over a period of time, moving on when the cones are gone. In this case, the finches had moved on and we contented ourselves with searching for other northern forest birds such as gray jays and boreal chickadees.
During our search, we tried a number of logging roads that are plowed in winter. While wandering down one road above the Telos checkpoint on North Maine Woods Association land, I noticed a stand of mature black spruce that had recently undergone selective harvesting. It’s just the kind of patch that Maine’s rarest woodpeckers love. We didn’t find any woodpeckers that day, but I made a mental note to revisit the area in 2014.
And thus I headed north in the dead of winter, Feb. 8 to be exact. I was barely out of the car when I heard a suspicious woodpecker drum. And then another.
The American three-toed woodpecker is a rare Maine breeder. It is closely related to the black-backed woodpecker, which is almost as rare. Both are denizens of northern spruce forests. The black-backed woodpecker can tolerate a mixed forest, as long as there is spruce available. I’ve seen them in the Bangor area and in Acadia National Park. The three-toed woodpecker is restricted almost entirely to black spruce habitat, and I’ve never seen one south of Millinocket. It is rarely reported.
Woodpeckers can often be identified by their drumming. Hairy woodpeckers drum faster than downy woodpeckers. Pileated woodpecker drums are booming and accelerate. Northern flickers are booming and don’t accelerate. Yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are uneven and peter out.
Up north, drumming can be the key to finding rare woodpeckers. Black-backed woodpeckers and three-toed woodpeckers are similar in appearance, but the latter has white barring along the back; the black-backed woodpecker is completely dark. The black-backed woodpecker’s drum is similar to a hairy woodpecker, though perhaps a bit shorter. The three-toed drum is deeper, slower, and somewhat ragged. And that’s what I was hearing.
Unfortunately, this one was drumming several hundred yards down a logging trail, which was covered by almost two feet of snow. I slogged my way in and confirmed the presence of Maine’s rarest breeding woodpecker. Within an hour, I had noted a couple of other three-toed woodpeckers nearby. As winter progressed into spring, I escorted a few people to the site. Word spread. In early June, one of my guests risked life and limb to find the actual nest hole. Word spread farther.
Most people passing the checkpoints onto North Maine Woods Association lands are anglers and paddlers. In autumn, their numbers swell with hunters. Rarely do birders venture deep into Maine’s forest. Suddenly, people wearing binoculars were gladly paying the $7 day use fee and exploring the area near Chamberlain Lake. It became a source of merriment to the gatekeepers who didn’t realize that there were celebrity birds in their backyard until all these birders started showing up.
So, my secret is out. These rare woodpeckers depend on disturbed forest. They strip bark from dead and dying trees. Spruce stands that suffer from fire or beaver flooding have been the natural habitat of these woodpeckers since the ice age. Forestry operations can mimic natural disturbances. I travel the north woods a lot, and I keep an eye out for suitable patches of woodland. It’s my favorite kind of birding.
There are 3.5 million acres of North Maine Woods land and almost nobody explores it for birds. I’ve got it all to myself. I’m willing to share it with anyone who is willing to learn the rules of the road. Pull over and stop for all logging trucks coming from any direction. Don’t park in the road, especially around hills and corners. Don’t stop on bridges. Don’t block side roads even if they look unused. Don’t count on your cellphone getting you out of trouble.
And to the gatekeepers for whom my discovery provided a summer’s worth of merriment: you’re welcome.