Gila Woodpecker — What’s For Breakfast?

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The Gila Woodpecker is a species that symbolizes our desert as much as any species does.  This bird is extremely common.  One sees these woodpeckers everywhere, and when one doesn’t see them, he or she certainly can hear them.  They call to each other constantly — a loud call that sounds to my ears like “ack-ack-ack!”  I cannot take a walk without hearing this call, often coming from multiple directions.

Gila Woodpeckers are highly active diurnal foragers.  They are omnivores, feeding on all sorts of plant life, insects, and the occasional small lizard.  I captured images of this woodpecker a couple of weeks ago as it busily hunted for breakfast in the hour right after sunrise.

When I first spotted him (the woodpecker’s red cap tells us that he’s a male) he perched on a blooming Saguaro, checking out the neighborhood.  He quickly immersed his head in a flower.

My first thought was that he was seeking to drink the flower’s nectar.  More likely, however, he was searching for nectar-seeking insects.  Saguaro flowers produce an abundance of nectar.  A blooming Saguaro attracts a horde of insects ranging from bees to butterflies.  This woodpecker may have been probing a flower to see if any insect snacks were within reach.

I watched the woodpecker descend from the Saguaro after a minute and alight on a blooming aloe.  Aloes are common sights in local residential communities.  They’re not native to our desert but do extremely well as ornamental plants.  This time I was sure that the woodpecker was hunting for insects.  He sat stock still on the aloe for a few seconds, then made a couple of brief lunges with his beak at flowers and flower stalks, acting as if he was trying to grab something.

Now, it’s breeding season for Gila Woodpeckers. These woodpeckers drill holes in Saguaro Cacti, raising their young in the cavities that they dig.  It’s common to see a big Saguaro with half a dozen cavities.  One of those is likely to be an active nest.  The others are former nests, often taken over by other species.  The cavities that the Gila Woodpeckers drill do the Saguaros no harm.  The cacti simply wall off the cavities’ interiors with scar tissue and go on about their existence.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO). First and second images, ISO 400, f5.6 @ 1/2500. Third image, ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/2500.

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