Naturalist’s Notebook: Lewis’s Woodpecker and Western Scrub Jay
By John Schmitt
April 15, 2012
25 September 2011
Tillie Creek Campground
Kern County, California
I was excited to find three immature Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the campground again this morning. They are always uncommon and unpredictable visitors to the Kern River Valley, and I’d been trying to observe them for the past three days. My viewing sessions often came to an abrupt end when a somewhat inept juvenile Cooper’s Hawk would show up and chase them around. The young hawk’s attempts to capture the woodpeckers were blundering testimonials to the bird’s inexperience, and the young woodpeckers had no difficulty in eluding its grasp. But it usually marked the end of my morning’s woodpecker observations.
This morning, one of the Lewis’s Woodpeckers was subjected to another kind of abuse. As usual, I found one of the young woodpeckers perched on a high exposed dead branch of a blue oak. I also noted a Western Scrub-Jay hopping about on the branches below and peering up at the woodpecker. I could tell the jay was intent on mischief and, sure enough, it began cautiously hopping toward the oblivious woodpecker. After a few timid upward hops, the jay was within reach of the woodpecker’s tail tip. The woodpecker seemed not to have noticed the bird’s approach, which emboldened the jay. It stretched up toward the woodpecker’s tail but at the last instant pulled back.
The woodpecker still appeared unaware of the jay, which reached out again and then once more pulled back. But on the third try, after readjusting the position of its feet upward, the jay seized the tail of the woodpecker and gave it a sharp jerk. The woodpecker flushed in a panic—but so did the jay, like a kid who just threw a firecracker into the girl’s lavatory at elementary school. The woodpecker’s panic was short-lived, and after flying around in its unique buoyant crowlike way, it soon perched on another high lookout branch and resumed its contemplative roost.