Black-backed Woodpecker at Pondicherry

| July 4, 2016 | 2 Comments

On June 20th Kevin Vande Vusse and I made the decision to drive north from the southern tier of New Hampshire into the White Mountains to chase down Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli), a shared life bird. Our mid-morning trip to the summit of Cannon Mountain in Franconia (which you can read about here) was extremely successful and before the clock turned noon we were back to my car at the base of the mountain basking in the glory of our success. It couldn’t have been any easier to tick off this wonderful species.

As exciting and rewarding as finding Bicknell’s Thrush was, we were hoping to add a few more northern species to our efforts on the day considering the distance we had traveled. We decided the best use of our time would be to look for one or two more target species and let the rest of the birds come as they may. This was going to be critical as the thermostat was continuing to rise with temperatures already in the low eighties and the midday sun still ahead of us. Bird activity was going to drop fast.

Even though we were flying by the seat of our pants for most of our day’s decisions, we did discuss the trip several times before our departure earlier that morning. In discussing what species we would potentially target, one of our top choices was Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). This is a species that would be new for Kevin and one that I haven’t observed since August 7, 2005 when I saw it for the first time in California. As luck would have it, it’s also a species that can be found within a short drive from the base of Cannon Mountain at several different locations. Simply put, there was no reason why we shouldn’t chase one down! We just needed to choose where to go.

Being an eBird reviewer for the state of New Hampshire I had been keeping track of several Black-backed Woodpecker sightings over the last few weeks leading up to our trip. Many of these sightings were at locations that were less than an hour from Cannon Mountain with many offering the potential for secondary target species such as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris). As I poured over the sightings on a regular basis one of the locations sounded more intriguing than the others, if for nothing else than for its name. Going on a hunch this is where we set our sights for the remainder of our day after Cannon Mountain. We were heading to Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in Jefferson, NH.

Pondicherry Map

Mount Washington Regional Airport and Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge (NE of the airfield)

As we drove from Cannon Mountain to Pondicherry, some 30 minutes away, we passed close to the Mount Washington Regional Airport in Whitefield, a mere hop-skip-and-a-jump from the refuge which is centered around Cherry Pond. The airport wasn’t necessarily on our radar, but because of its presence and the associated mowed fields around the airfield we added a few unexpected grassland species to our Coos County list including Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) and Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). As we  briefly took in the airfield’s birds and some nearby Chestnut-sided Warblers (Setophaga pensylvanica) just prior at a roadside marsh, we soon realized we didn’t exactly know how to enter Pondicherry or where the Black-backed Woodpecker sightings really were. All we knew was that we were close, and potentially even in the refuge, we just didn’t know anything about it! With each passing minute the temperature was steadily climbing and bird activity was fading fast around us. Chasing down a woodpecker at midday was perhaps not the wisest of decisions we’ve ever made, so we had to come up with a game plan, fast.

Now, there is no doubt that smartphone technology has been a game changer in the world of birding. I can’t begin to tell you how many times it has saved me hours of driving around looking for a location or a species that was merely just around the corner. Pulling up eBird on my iPhone Kevin and I quickly discovered that there was actually a cluster of Black-backed Woodpecker sightings to the northeast of the airfield adjacent to Cherry Pond (Pondicherry?). This location was just around the corner from where we were, and according to Google Maps all we had to do was drive the access road leading from the airfield to Cherry Pond. It looked fairly easy and straight forward. Knowing where we had to go, we soon found a dirt access road adjacent to the small airport that would take us in the direction of Cherry Pond. As we pulled onto the road I started to question how close we would actually get via car and how far of a walk we would actually need to make since I didn’t know how far the road would actually go. I guess I didn’t expect the road to be as rugged as it was. Obviously, it’s been a while since I’ve done any sort of north country birding. The thing is, in my Subaru Forester this is a road that I wouldn’t think twice about driving down, but driving down it in Kevin’s Saab made me think twice. Visions of us bottoming out and walking back to the airport in the blazing sun soon began to fill my thoughts. Fortunately, Kevin assured me that he’s been down worse roads in his Saab, chasing birds of course and we would get to our destination. We pressed onward as Kevin began to tell me about the noise coming from underneath his car.

Follow the dirt path road

Driving down the access road towards Cherry Pond with woodpeckers on our mind, I soon heard something out of Kevin’s window and quickly asked him to stop. With hopes of finding Yellow-bellied Flycatcher as an incidental target on this trip, the end of an empidonax call through the window was enough to snap my birding reflexes into high gear. Putting the car into park I told Kevin of the potential species that I heard calling over the rumble of dirt. Getting out of the car we waited patiently to hear the bird call again. Within a minute or two the bird once again sounded off before Kevin and I looked at each other in honest disappointment, “Least Flycatcher”. It was the difference between a “CHEbek “(Least) and a “chebunk” (Yellow-bellied). Oh well, it was worth the try, and if anything it showed me that the heat hadn’t dulled my senses yet.

Roadside wetland found along the dirt road

As we continued down the dirt road at a snail’s pace around potholes and undercarriage-busting humps, the bird song remained quiet in the midday sun, but the north woods insect life began to peak in intensity. The most obvious example of this was the pure volume of butterflies that were working the edges and center of the road, likely looking for mudding or puddling opportunities. There were so many lepidoptera that it reminded me of my time along the Rio Grande River back in 2005 where butterflies were everywhere! Bust just like then we didn’t stop to look too closely at the butterflies since we were on a mission for birds. However, in spite of our bird blinders, several species of butterflies were clearly present as they flitted in front of the car with White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) numbering in the dozens if not hundreds.

The other insect activity that picked up in intensity the further we traveled down the dirt road towards our destination was deer flies. Deer flies are probably the exact opposite of butterflies. In fact, when we reached the terminus of the dirt road, which by the way, was not close to Cherry Pond, the deer flies bombarded our car from all directions. It was a scene straight out of a north woods horror movie. At that point I looked at Google Maps and realized that without being able to drive any further we were going to need to walk a fair distance to get to Cherry Pond in midday sun and a potential deer fly swarm. Not miles and miles of walking, but enough that our fortitude would be tested under the current conditions. The deer flies were so bad that Kevin and I pondered our options, including finding a more accessible site, as the deer flies smashed into our windows with a loud “tik, tik, tik” before realizing that we had to make the walk out to Cherry Pond to try our luck. We certainly weren’t going to happen across a Black-backed Woodpecker from where we were parked and we came an awful long way to just give up. With that decision we grabbed a final drink of water, our binoculars and cameras, and started towards the railroad tracks that would lead us to Cherry Pond and the Black-backed Woodpeckers we had hoped to find.

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End of the line! Kevin’s car turned around baking in the midday sun awaiting our return

 

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At least the walking was made easier by the railroad tracks

The walk itself was quite beautiful along the railroad tracks that cut across this northern landscape towards Cherry Pond and beyond. The heat was on, and the birds were few, but the walk wasn’t as bad as we had expected it to be once we got used to walking on loose stone or over railroad ties. For the next 20 minutes we dodged deer flies and watched our steps before finally arriving at the southwestern corner of Cherry Pond, a previous hotspot of Black-backed sightings (see map insert above). As the sun continued to bake us from above we took in the beautiful and gorgeous sights of Cherry Pond and the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in the distance. For those of you who are unaware, the Presidential Range also includes Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast at  6,288 feet and the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River. This alone was worth the walk in the heat. Regaining our focus, we listened closely for woodpecker activity and checked out every dead snag we could find without any sign of this boreal woodpecker. After thirty minutes of searching and scanning as the sun reached peak intensity we decided that we should probably cut our losses and try our luck elsewhere at another nearby Black-backed Woodpecker spot during cooler afternoon temperatures. We traced our steps back along the railroad tracks and eventually arrived back to the car where (less) cold water and air conditioning (and space away from deer flies) never felt better. Time to move on.

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The Presidential Range and Cherry Pond

 

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Cherry Pond. We scanned for Common Loon and Moose but to no avail

 

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No luck!

Tired and broken as we headed back towards the airport along the dirt road I texted a birding friend of mine telling him of our unsuccessful chase of the woodpecker and asked if he had any advice for other places nearby. It was a Hail Mary play with the hopes that he would respond quick enough and would suggest a place close enough for us to give it a go. A lot of variables and a lot of wishing.  Twenty minutes later he got back to me stating that we absolutely needed to check out other parts of Pondicherry as the he had just seen the woodpeckers there the week before! At this point he gave me some refined directions to where we were very likely to run across the birds. As I stared at these directions on my phone’s screen all I could think about was how close we were to these birds but we had just walked back to our car and were already driving out of the area! In fact, by this point in time we were already well past the airport and on our way to find lunch to get out of the midday sun. Digesting the news, I looked over at Kevin and read him the update. Sweaty and tired he quickly chimed in “let’s go back!”. I picked up on his energy and we agreed that we needed to go back, but not before grabbing some lunch in a nearby town to give us the fuel to make the long trek back out the railroad tracks to Cherry Pond and beyond. It was pretty spectacular to see how quickly our energy picked up with the encouraging news. With a newfound hope we continued on down the road to Littleton to grab some Chinese food and to allow the temperature to cool a bit before heading back.

After a buffet style lunch that was less clean fuel and more bulk fuel, we drove north again back to Pondicherry, back to the dirt road, back to the heat, and back to the deer flies…. but this time we were confident and determined! We arrived some 2 hours plus after we first left and took my contact’s information and walked the railroad tracks again to Cherry Pond, but this time continued further down the tracks than we were before. Taking a side trail to the described location of some more recent sightings, we were now out of the sun in the shade of the forest, a much welcomed situation. However, as anyone who spends time up north knows, what you trade out with sun and deer flies you get back with shade and mosquitoes. I honestly don’t know which one was worse.

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Heading through the forest on a series of makeshift boardwalks covered in chickenwire for traction

 

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Kevin checking out some of the native plant life

 

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Pink Lady Slipper

 

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Flowering Pitcher Plant

Pushing through the forest for 25 minutes we finally arrived at the designated area we were told to look for the woodpeckers, a small pond with lots of boggy elements on the fringe including moss, pitcher plants, and lots of dead snags. As we looked around in this open expanse of the pond Kevin yelled out “I got it! I got the Black-backed Woodpecker!”. I turned to his direction and tried getting on the bird as it was perched, but in an instant the woodpecker left the tree and flew up and over us, past the direction from which we came. As quick as we had found the bird, it was gone! I didn’t get looks through my binoculars, but what I saw in flight was clearly our target species. Having seen this species before, this was a good enough look for me, and for Kevin his view through his binoculars was good enough to count it as a life bird, even if it was fleeting. At this point Kevin and glanced at each other giving ourselves big smiles realizing that we had seen our target, no matter how quick of a look it was! That alone was worth celebrating. While we discussed our options Kevin looked at the tree he had observed the bird flying from and stated that the tree appeared to have some cavities in it. I put up my binoculars for a look as well and he was right, the small spruce appeared to have at least one cavity. At that moment we realized that this was likely a nesting bird and we were going to wait to see if the bird would come back for a better look.

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Land of the Black-backed Woodpecker

 

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Pond X

 

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And now we wait!

Fortunately, the mosquitoes were left behind in the woods and the strong breeze across the pond limited deer fly activity which made waiting bearable. The view didn’t hurt either. However, it was still plenty warm. 15 minutes later a medium-sized black and white woodpecker flew overhead and alighted back on the same tree. As it did the tree erupted with the squeaks and rattles of nestling woodpeckers! In spite of the distance from where we were, Kevin and I snapped furiously with our cameras trying to get as many photographs as we could from this elusive species. In an instant the woodpecker flew off past us and just like that the bird was gone. Kevin and I looked at each other and gave each other huge smiles and a round of high fives. “That was awesome!”.

Black-backed Woodpecker with grubs (Photo courtesy of Kevin Vande Vusse)

 

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Black-backed Woodpecker at cavity site (photo courtesy of Kevin Vande Vusse)

We agreed that with the adults feeding young we had time to wait around for more photographic opportunities. The birds didn’t appear to mind our presence, and in fact, they were a safe distance away from us and in no real danger from our actions. Over the course of the next hour Kevin and I had 3 more opportunities for photos with each one mirroring the last; the birds would fly overhead, perch, deliver food, and depart in a matter of 15-20 seconds. Getting photos at this distance and for such a short duration of time proved challenging, but it was a ton of fun at the moment. At one point one of the adults that was departing the cavity flew directly towards us instead of over us before alighting at the top of a dead snag right above our heads where it drummed on the dead branch before flying off again. This was the perfect distance for a good photograph, but for both Kevin and I, the bird was on the backside of the tree and for me my camera was telling me that my 64 gig memory card was FULL! ACK! Of all times.

After another 20 minutes with no adults returning to the nest, Kevin and I decided it was time to make the 45-minute walk back to the car so we could drive the 2 hours back home. As we walked out of Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge in the fading light the true beauty of the north country revealed itself. Perhaps it was the high of seeing our target Black-backed Woodpecker or perhaps it was the fact that the Presidential Range across from Cherry Pond glistened in fading sunlight as the temperature cooled and birds began to sing again? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was the honest fact that we had to earn our keep after such an easy and successful morning with the Bicknell’s Thrush. As we listened to a singing Canada Warbler (Cardellina Canadensis) adjacent to the railroad tracks, the two long, hot, deer fly-filled walks, seemed more than worth it. In fact, I don’t think our trip would have been nearly as fun if it wasn’t for the hardship of trying the first time and failing. Once back at the car we indulged in lukewarm water and fresh cherries as we opened the car doors to vent the heat. It was time to call it a day.

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Time to head back

 

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No matter how big the chase you have to make sure you’re having fun

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Chad
Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!

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  1. Bicknell’s Thrush at Cannon Mountain, NH : Chat Happens | July 4, 2016
  1. Carol Renwick says:

    More dues to pay for this sighting! Again your writing and photographs make the adventure engaging and bring the woodpecker to life.

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