by Cathy Kozmary
The “Costaways” had a fun day birding around LV during the GBBO nevada bird-a-thon 2020event (article: https://www.redrockaudubon.com/news/archives/06-2020) and a highlight was discovering a Ladder-backed Woodpecker (LBWO) nest within Wheeler Camp Springs! It was a treat after a long, hot day of birding and one of those birding moments I’ll never forget. The group had moved through the dry river bed looking for birds when I looked back over my shoulder (can’t remember why I did that) and saw a woodpecker up high in a tree with no leaves. We headed back towards the tree to have a closer look and get some photos, and saw the bird flutter down the tree, stop about 20 ft above the ground, do something and fly away. As we got closer, we saw a perfectly round hole in the tree – a nest! It was the female that we observed taking food to the nest.
It was the first time I had birded WCS and now understand what an excellent riparian area it is. Over the next 3 weeks, various birders observed Grosbeaks (Blue & Black-headed), Tanagers (Summer & Western), Flycatchers (Ash-throated, Cordilleran), Western Wood-Pewee, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and the infamous Worm Eating Warbler that paid Clark county a visit during the spring migration (read Jennifer Dudek’s article : https://www.redrockaudubon.com/news/early-bird-catches-the-worm-literally-and-figuratively). Other nests discovered included the Ash-throated Flycatcher, Verdin, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher and, although not seen directly, the Summer Tanager as a juvenile was seen several times and we believe there was a nest in the area.
I wanted to share some observations I made of the LBWO nest. The LBWO is a small woodpecker that lives in more arid country. In the United States in dry areas of the southwest, including brushland, desert washes, mesquites, riverside trees in prairie country, towns. The nest was situated such that observing was possible well hidden under a mesquite in the adjoining river bed. Each parent would approach the nest by first landing at the very top of the barren tall tree directly above the nest, wait and observe the area for “danger” before fluttering down to feed the chicks. The tall barren tree was nicknamed “The Watchtower” (thanks Barb) and it served this purpose well.
On two occasions I saw Ravens and the Ash-throated Flycatcher nearby The Watchtower, and this caused the LBWO’s to hesitate to flutter down and feed, in fact, they flew away with the Ravens present. Smaller birds such as Hummingbirds, Verdins, Grosbeaks and various Warblers did not seem to pose any threat as such. I noticed that the female (black crown) was much more cautious about approaching the nest.
I observed the male (red crown) foraging for bugs in the area a couple of times. Two things occurred to me – it spent at least 30 to 40 minutes foraging for bugs, and second, stuffed its beak full before heading back to the nest. It looked like 3 or 4 bugs at a time if not more! Such dedication to its young! Before the chicks were visible in the nest, each parent would take the food into the nest, actually disappear from view for a few seconds. Upon exit, the parent would very occasionally have something in its beak which I could never really identify and realized that this was just some nest cleaning activity. As the chicks aged, feeding was done from outside the nest – no room for the adults to go into the actual nest!
What was especially rewarding was observing one chick as it made its first proper LBWO call. I started observing the nest on May 16th, saw a chick for the first time on May 28th, and heard/watched it make its first call on May 30th. It was a magical moment indeed! The first time I saw a chick, it was very shy and appeared barely awake. I truly enjoyed watching the progression until June 2nd, the last day I observed chicks in the nest. Interestingly this was the day after I saw the chick being able to make the full adult “rattle call”.
I am already looking forward to next year and having the opportunity to observe this and other nests at Wheeler Camp Springs.