Finding Uncommon Birds: Lewis’s Woodpecker


The Idaho State Bird List describes the Lewis’s Woodpecker as “uncommon and local.” Most of the time, that means they can be hard to find. Among the better places to find the species in the middle part of the Salmon River Canyon. So WC and Mrs. WC set out to Riggins, Idaho, at the confluence of the Little Salmon River and the main stem, the Salmon River itself, and followed Salmon River Road upstream.

There were some challenges. The Salmon River drains the Idaho Batholith, a deeply dissected mass of granitic rock. The river winds through a canyon that is 2,500 – 5,000 feet deep. Seriously winds. So the road seriously winds, too,

Salmon River and the Salmon River Canyon

Salmon River and the Salmon River Canyon

It’s mostly a single lane road, sketchy in places, and has some bridges that do not inspire confidence.

Yes, that's an auto bridge. No it does not inspire confidence.

Yes, that’s an auto bridge. No it does not inspire confidence.

The air temperature was 96° F. WC has lived in Alaska all of his life. WC is not adapted, shall we say, to temperatures much above 80° F. Remember WC’s Rule for Living with Extreme Temperature: There is no practical limit to the amount of clothes you can put on to stay warm. There is a practical limit to how many clothes you can take off to stay cool.

And the mid-day light in the canyon, with the glare off the light grey rock and the water, was pretty harsh. But Mrs. WC found a bird, which led us to a nest.

Lewis's Woodpecker with Food for the Kids, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Lewis’s Woodpecker with Food for the Kids, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

The entrance to the nest cavity pointed out over the river, putting the bird in heavy shadow. Even with spot exposure, there’s a lot of detail lost. But after feeding the kids, the bird moved to the sunny side of the snag and posed.

Lewis's Woodpecker, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Lewis’s Woodpecker, Salmon River Canyon, Idaho

Still harsh light, but better lit. By the way, the bird isn’t calling in the photo; it’s panting.

Wait, you say, why not come to the Salmon River Canyon in the early morning or early evening, when the light isn’t so harsh? The answer is that the canyon is so deep and so steep-walled that it doesn’t get much, if any, of that sweet early or late light. By the time light reaches the canyon floor, it’s already harsh.

Still, WC has decent if not great photos of a species he didn’t have before. With sufficient fluids, WC may recover and go on to photograph other birds. But bless the air conditioning on our aging Dodge Dakota pickup. And the cooperative Lewis’s Woodpeckers along the Salmon River.

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