Editor’s Note: In the photo on The Beachcomber’s website teasing this story, the acorn woodpecker holds an acorn in her beak and prepares to stash it next to another she has cached in the broken branch of a Douglas Fir tree. (Jim Diers Photo)
An acorn woodpecker has been hanging around the old Misty Isle Farms airstrip at SW 232nd Street since Nov. 2.
For the nonbirder, this information might result in a shrug, but to the birding community on Vashon and beyond, it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, people from all around Puget Sound have been traveling here to get a glimpse of the jaunty little black-and-white bird with a white iris and red crest.
What’s all the fuss about? This woodpecker species is rarely seen north of southern Washington, where a small population lives near the tiny town of Lyle along the Columbia River. They prefer oak or pine-oak stands along the west coast through Oregon, California, Mexico, and Central America—with the southernmost population living in Colombia.
Our visitor constitutes the first record of this species on the island. Its appearance in Puget Sound is a curiosity to birders, offering a chance to see a bird close to home that they would otherwise have to travel farther to see.
The bird’s presence is comparable to that of the beluga whale that visited our waters last fall. It’s exciting to see a creature unusual for our area, and it sparks concern because the animal is so far outside its normal range.
Master birder and islander Sue Trevathan’s first thought was that the bird’s appearance was climate-change-related, possibly due to an acorn crop failure in the bird’s former home.
“These birds live and work together as a cooperative family group and for whatever reason, this female struck out on her own,” she says. “No matter why she landed here, what better way to get excited about birds than having this rare bird visit?”
Sue also worries about the woodpecker’s well-being, flying solo —so to speak — after being raised with an extended family for protection. She adds that predators like the merlin, a falcon that hunts small birds, have also shown interest in the new arrival.
Woodpeckers are charismatic birds with distinct qualities: their drumming is their song, they have anteater-like tongues to nab insects in hard-to-reach places, and their zygodactyl toes — two face front and two backward — enable easy hopping along vertical tree trunks. Most important to ecosystem health, they are essential forest excavators whose nesting holes are used by myriad other birds and other animals.
Acorn woodpeckers are known for impressive “granaries” where they stash tens of thousands of acorns in tree trunks or utility poles. Our visitor has been busy collecting acorns from nearby oaks and has been observed inserting them into utility poles, the tops of the fence poles, and a dead Douglas-fir branch.
These woodpeckers’ remarkably complex social structure has prompted one of the longest-running bird behavior studies ever (following family groups in California). They live in extended clans that aggressively defend their rich nut stores, females share and brood one collective nest, and the clan works together to rear young. This bird has been identified as a female because her crest is black and red, as opposed to the male’s, which is all red.
The first time I set out to find the acorn woodpecker, I was feeling low. It was a drizzly morning just a few days after Ed Swan had died. Ed had a heart attack two weeks shy of his 60th birthday, and his death left a gaping hole in our birding and island communities, and surely a great void for all humankind.
Ed was a quiet force for making the world a better place, whether sparking stewardship for birds through bird walks and classes, helping build a school in Uganda, keeping meticulous bird records (he also authored “The Birds of Vashon Island”), or advocating for the housing insecure. Since his death, I’ve talked to countless people who mourn his loss, each with a story to share about Ed’s generosity and kind heart.
Ed is one of a handful of teachers who shaped me into a better birder and more patient naturalist. I was lucky enough to take his Advancing Birder course held via Zoom in the depths of the pandemic—a bright spot during a time of uncertainty and fear. The thoughtful course was like a college-level immersion in bird identification, and how to apply this skill to contribute to knowledge about bird populations and inspire others to care about birds.
One of my classmates, Virginia Lohr, was the first person to spot and report the acorn woodpecker. When she first spied the bird, she recalled what Ed had taught about making notes and recordings when you see an unusual bird.
I didn’t find the bird on my first visit or even the second. But the third time was a charm, and my friend Karen Fevold heard the woodpecker before seeing it swoop across the road from a line of scarlet oaks with a telltale acorn in her beak.
We watched the bird alight atop a utility pole and peck out a hole for her cache. Once her job was complete, she hopped to the center of the pole and seemed to puff out her chest with crest held high. I imagined her thinking, “The oaks are mine as far as the eye can see!”
A visit from a rare bird is a gift of nature. Ed Swan’s gift was making every bird shine like a rare bird. He taught me to listen for and see things in ways that forever changed how I view the world, and he emanated a contagious sense of wonder for the mystery and beauty that surrounds us at every moment. And someone who can do that is a rare bird indeed.
A note on birding etiquette: If you visit the acorn woodpecker, please talk quietly, do not approach her granary poles, and give her plenty of space.
To learn more about island birds, visit Vashon Audubon at vashonaudubon.org.
A celebration of Ed Swan’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Vashon United Methodist Church.
Kathryn True is an island writer and a member of the Vashon Nature Center (VNC) science advisory council. This article first appeared on the Vashon Nature Center blog, at vashonnaturecenter.org.