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"Do you think there are American three-toed woodpeckers to be found in the Adirondacks?" Stephen asked.

I responded by saying something along the lines of "I'm not sure. It's been years since the last confirmed sighting, but it's worth investigating."

This was the inquiry by a participant in one of last spring's outings for Paul Smith's Great Adirondack Birding Celebration.

Exactly one month later I was guiding Stephen Blacklocks on a trip into what has historically been an American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) breeding location. Our team consisted of four birders; myself as the guide, Stephen as the trip sponsoring birder, and two other birders, Pat Bixler and Tony Galligani. We did a deep dive into the spruce/fir forest around the edge of Ferd's Bog. This was an intriguing quest of an outing especially since Stephen is a recorder of bird song soundscapes. He brought parabola and shotgun mics that allowed us to tune into distant drumming and vocalizations. We encountered a healthy diversity of woodpecker species which included at least 6 black-backed woodpeckers and two woodpecker drums that might possibly have been an American three-toed woodpecker, but no definitive photo or audio confirmation of the illusive bird.

(Stephen Blacklocks trains his shotgun mic in the direction of what looked to us like prime three-toed woodpecker habitat at the edge of Ferd's Bog)

A species search on, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's global bird conservation database, reveals that it has been 10 years since the last confirmed sighting (location Whiteface Memorial Highway by Stacy Robinson) and 17 years since the last photographic evidence (Location Bloomingdale Bog Trail by Lisa Welch) of American three-toed woodpecker in New York's north country.

The three-toed is a bird who flourishes in areas where there is an abundance of bark beetles to eat. Therefore, the three-toed is dependent on wildfires and flooding that weaken tree's immune defenses allowing for an explosion in bark beetle populations to occur. When just like that, the stars align in favor of American three-toed's a buffet!

In case you're wondering what bark beetles are, there's an important difference to note between the favored food of black-backed woodpeckers which is wood-boring beetle larva, and the favored food of American three-toed woodpeckers which is bark beetles. Wood boring beetle larva burrow deep into the heartwood of trees requiring black-backed woodpeckers to dig deep with their chisel beaks to extract the preferred food item. On the other hand, bark beetles reside in the living layer of trees, outside of the heartwood and beneath the bark. So, all the three-toed has to do is flake off bark to access the galleries of bark beetles and their larva. This is why bark flaking on spruce trees is a good sign of the potential presence of American three-toed woodpecker.

It's also why American three-toed woodpeckers are notoriously difficult for birders to locate. For the human ear it's easier to pick up on the pounding of beak against heartwood than it is to tune into the quiet methodical flaking of bark.

(Bark flaking on this black spruce tree is a sign of the potential presence of American three-toed woodpecker. The dark material at the tip of my pinky finger is frass resulting from bark beetle's eating the tree's inner bark.)

American three-toed woodpecker is a species in decline in the Adirondacks for a number of reasons which includes relatively uniform forest maturation, wildfire suppression, climate change that results in boreal forest areas being replaced by temperate zone tree species, and fewer areas where there are sizeable stands of dead and dying trees infested by bark beetles. But the three-toed's story in the Adk's is not without hope, so read on for the encouraging details.

Most of the areas of standing dead trees that I've visited during the past year have been too far gone to house those explosive bark beetle populations, but not all. The above photo of bark flaking on a black spruce tree was taken at a flooded peatland habitat in Duane, NY that includes a forest of black spruce trees.

(A flooded peatland environment with a stand of beetle-infested black spruce trees in Duane, NY)

While black spruce trees do like to have their feet wet, the amount of water that inundated the roots of these trees must have weakened their defenses because the bark beetles are present in abundance. Upon circumnavigating the peatland, I discovered (as you might expect) that this peatland was flooded by a family of beavers, who, through their dam building activities inadvertently cultivated what seems to be the perfect remnant habitat for American three-toed woodpeckers in New York's Adirondack Park.

(The author perched at the base of the beaver dam that is mentioned in this blog post.)

This is a fun spot that I enjoy visiting because of its boreal character. In this beautiful pocket of state land there are no trails, and the landscape has a wild and remote feel to it. It took three trips until I found a way in that did not involve pushing through a thick impenetrable wall of fir trees. Moose tracks and droppings are a regular sight on the game trails that pass through the flooded peatland. Black-backed woodpeckers, Canada jays, palm warblers, and other northern species flourish. The habitat is such that I always wonder if during my next visit I'll encounter an American three-toed woodpecker flaking bark from a flooded black spruce tree enjoying a feast of bark beetles.

Thanks to these beavers, I have hope that one day I will encounter an American three-toed woodpecker in the flesh at this location. I also wonder how many more locations there are in New York's north country where beaver activity has created habitat where American three-toed woodpeckers can find a home. Maybe you'll find the next one.

Happy Birding,



Rich Hanlon is a Birding Guide and Naturalist Educator. He is the owner and operator of Wild Neighbors Nature Connection, an Adirondack guide service that specializes in guided birding, wildlife observation, and nature awareness in New York's Adirondack Park. Wild Neighbors Nature Connection outings can include hiking, paddling, backpacking, handicapped-accessible options and more. Experience quintessential boreal birds and other wildlife while exploring unique wilderness destinations not in the travel books. visit to book your outing today.

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