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Sat, May 25

Column: Effect of Yarnell Hill Fire on woodpecker populations

Adult male acorn woodpecker
Courtesy/Bob Gunderson

Adult male acorn woodpecker

In my column last week, I wrote about the first two days of last weeks’ Road Scholar birding program, covering our time spent at Date Creek Ranch and Burro Creek. On Wednesday, we visited the Hassayampa River Preserve, followed by Yarnell, Peeples Valley and Walnut Grove on Thursday, and Congress on Friday.

Highlights from the remainder of our week include finding three different active great-horned owl nests! We were able to put a spotting scope on all three nests affording each of the participants’ great views. The most unusual nest was situated on the side of the trunk of a palm tree. I have no idea how there will possibly be enough room for the baby owls in the nest as they get bigger.

Another highlight from last week was seeing six different wren species over the course of the week: cactus, rock, canyon, marsh, house, and Bewick’s. Each species prefers a specific habitat that is well described by its name. For example, in the Sonoran Desert, cactus wrens are found in habitats with a lot of cactus, rock wrens are found in rocky habitats and canyon wrens are found in canyons, and so forth.

Our time spent birding in Yarnell this past week was very productive. This small, mountainous community has a remarkable variety of birds. We saw numbers of northern cardinals, American goldfinch, bridled and juniper titmouse, bushtit, white-breasted nuthatch and Cassin’s finch.

One observation in Yarnell that intrigues me is the lack of acorn woodpeckers, and the abundance of gila woodpeckers. This is a change which I have noticed since the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. Before 2013, we would regularly see acorn woodpeckers, and we didn’t used to see any gila woodpeckers.

We typically spend time birding along Shrine Road in Yarnell and many of the mature oak trees in this area were destroyed by the fire. The absence of acorn–producing oak trees has resulted in the acorn woodpecker population leaving the area. We are now seeing numbers of gila woodpeckers that have moved into this altered, post-fire habitat.

It is unusual to see gila woodpeckers at this elevation and in this habitat. Gila woodpeckers are typically found at the much lower Sonoran Desert elevation where there is an abundance of sahuaros. There are no sahuaros in Yarnell, yet gila woodpeckers are now common in this area. It is a sudden and dramatic change in the distribution of these two species, as a result of the wildfire which changed the habitat.

I am back in Wickenburg again this week, leading the second session of this NAU–sponsored week-long birding trip. It has been interesting to see the difference in birds we are observing this week compared to last week. More migratory birds have shown up since just last week. Already, after only two days of birding, we are at 78 species for the week.

This Saturday is the “Get Off The Couch! The University of Outdoor Recreation” event at Mile High Middle School from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Expert presenters will be presenting information on a variety of topics such as basic map reading and using GPS, mountain biking, canoeing, sail boating, back packing, archaeology, and of course, bird watching! I will be one of the presenters and will be speaking about birds of the Central Highlands area, will talk about field guides and optics equipment such as binoculars and scopes. If you need more information about this event, feel free to stop by the store.

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona – on Willow Creek Road in Prescott, and at 2360 State Highway 89A in Sedona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.

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