Woodpeckers are an important part of the old-growth forest at Oregon Caves. When walking the park trails, it is virtually impossible not to see, hear, or find evidence of woodpeckers. Drumming and calling woodpeckers are a constant. And a surprising number of the park's abundant tree snags contain holes where these birds can often be found either searching for insects or excavating cavities for nesting. Although most visitors come to see the superb cave formations, those who hike the park trails obtain a first-hand lesson in forest ecology.
A total of seven woodpecker species have been found within the monument boundary: Lewis's, White-headed, Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers; Northern Flicker; and Red-breasted Sapsucker. Most abundant of these are the "Red-shafted" Flicker and Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers.
The massive holes in the old tree trunks, both standing and on the ground, are largely the work of the Pileated, the largest of the woodpeckers by far. A lucky visitor may even watch this wonderful woodpecker at work; it frequents the forest near the park facilities and cave entrance. The Pileated Woodpecker, whose name is pronounced either "pi-le-at-ed" or "pil-le-at-ed," according to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, is easy to identify because of its large size and black back, tail, and underparts, white stripe that runs across its cheek and down its neck, and bright red crest. Males also possess a red patch behind the bill. In flight, which is very bat-like, they show huge white patches below and smaller patches on top of the wings.
Despite its large size, this woodpecker is more often heard than seen. It has a loud, far-reaching "wuk wuk wuk" calls, which rnay sound like the "wick" notes of a flicker. John Terres reports that it also has "a loud 'high call' cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk, higher-pitched in female, the main breeding note that expresses dominance in its area." He also states that "both sexes drum, females less than males, usually on resonant place on dead tree or dead stub, a rolling tattoo lasting 3-5 seconds; drumming advertises territory and attracts a mate."
The Pileated Woodpecker, the model for the "Woody Woodpecker" cartoon character, requires considerable acreage of mature conifers to survive. These birds have disappeared in areas that have been heavily timbered, although there also are places where they have returned after reforestation. They normally are full-time residents and maintain mates year-round. Paul Ehrlich and colleagues, in The Birder's Handbook, summarize their nesting activities thusly: "Male roosts in nest cavity prior to egg laying; at other times roosts in nest cavity of previous year. Male incubates at night. Male and female brood up to 10 days." They also include a record of a female Pileated that retrieved her eggs from a fallen nest tree and carried them in her bill, one by one, to a new site. Nesting was resumed, and the nestlings eventually fledged.
The Park Environment
Oregon Caves was proclaimed a national monument in I909 to protect the beautiful, 3-mile-long solution cave, earlier referred to by Joaquin Miller (poet of the Sierras) as the "Marble Halls of Oregon." Surrounded by Siskiyou National Forest lands, the 484-acre monument also contains a remnant of original forest. And the approximately 6 miles of trails provide easy access.
Located on the western slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains in southwestern Oregon, the monument is situated in a rocky canyon surrounded by steep forested slopes. Area vegetation, studied by James Agee and colleagues in developing a fire history for the area, includes seven community types: a white fir/herb community, dominated by white fir and incense-cedar, with a shrub layer of California hazelnut and wild rose; a mesic white fir/Douglas-fir community of white fir and Douglas-fir, and a shrub layer of currants/gooseberry and hazelnut; a dry white fir/Douglas-fir community of white fir, Douglas-fir, and bigleaf maple; a Douglas-fir/oak community, dominated by Douglas-fir, white fir, canyon live oak, tanoak, Pacific madrone, and incense-cedar; an Oregon white oak community, dominated by Oregon white oak and incense-cedar; a meadow community, dominated by herbs; and an alder community, dominated by Sitka alder.
A multiagency Illinois Valley Information Center, located on Highway 46 in Cave Junction, offers information services, an orientation video program, and a sales outlet; bird field guides are available. A bird checklist is also available at the monument ranger station at the entrance parking area. Interpretive activities include walks and evening talks during the summer months, guided cave tours, and the self-guided Cliff Nature Trail.
Additional information can be obtained from the area manager, Oregon Caves National Monument, 19000 Caves Highway, Cave Junction, OR 97523; (541) 592-2100.
The most numerous woodpecker in the Oregon Caves forest is the Hairy Woodpecker. Only half as large as the Pileated, the Hairy Woodpecker is best identified by its white back and contrasting black wings and tail. It also has a black cap, white eyeline, black cheeks, and white nape, and males sport a red crown stripe. Hairy Woodpeckers are mixed-forest birds, while the smaller look-alike Downy Woodpeckers prefer broadleaf communities, such as alder thickets. Besides their overall size differences, bill sizes are an even more dependable method of identification; a Downy Woodpecker's bill is tiny by comparison.
All the resident woodpeckers construct nest holes in live or dead trees and snags almost every year, producing lots of unused nest cavities. A number of other forest birds take advantage of the vacated cavities for nests: Western Screech-Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Winter Wren. Each of these variable-sized birds is able to find the right-sized cavity.
Although owls are year-round residents in the forest, finding one is usually a matter of chance, even when knowing when and where to look. Locating songbirds is much easier; nesting birds readily advertise their locations during the daytime, especially during early morning, and a few sing all day.
The Cliff Nature Trail provides the visitor with a good introduction to the area's bird life. A dozen or more species can easily be found along this trail. If you have not already met the Steller's Jay at the monument parking area, along the entrance road, or at the cave entrance, it surely will be one of the first birds encountered on the trail. This is the large, crested blue jay with a blackish nape and crest, a loud voice, and an obnoxious personality. It apparently thinks it owns the premises, and will continuously monitor your activities, especially if it thinks you are about to have lunch or a snack. A member of the crow (Corvidae) family, it has an amazing capacity to carry away and store food in caches hidden on trees or on the ground. It may even steal food from other birds' caches.
Ralph Hoffmann, in his delightful book, Birds of the Pacific States, provides us with a description of the personality of the Steller's Jay:
The Crested Jay is a noisy, inquisitive bird, hopping about a camp in search of bits of food, or screaming an alarm at our approach. It is one of the first birds to discover a hawk perched in a tree, or an owl in its hiding place, and to proclaim its discovery with angry cries. Besides the ringing 'tchek' . . . generally given in flight, the Crested Jay utters from its perch a loud 'kweesch, kweesch, kweesch.' It has besides a deeper 'chu-chu-chu' and a note resembling a squeaking wheelbarrow, 'kee-lu, kee-lu.' It also utters screams so like those of the Red-tailed and Red-bellied Hawks as to deceive the listener. Occasionally from the cover of dense foliage, it utters a formless succession of liquid, pleasing notes quite unlike its usual discordant notes, or a purring or rolling note.
Other obvious birds to be found along the Cliff Nature Trail include the Dark-eyed Junco, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and Winter Wren, more or less in that order. Dark-eyed Juncos are usually abundant, although they may be secretive near their nests. This is the little black-headed bird with pinkish sides and white edges on its dark tail, especially evident in flight. Once known as "Oregon Junco," it has been lumped with the Rocky Mountain and eastern forms under the generic "dark-eyed" name. Juncos also are known as "snowbirds" in the southern parts of their range where they overwinter. Oregon Cave's junco population, however, seldom migrates south, but simply descends into the lower, warmer valleys when it gets too cold in the highlands; the population may even shift back and forth on the slopes throughout the winter, staying just below the snow line.
Conversely, the Red-breasted Nuthatch normally remains on its territory year-round, so long as food is available. Although this little bird is not easily seen, because it usually stays high on the conifers, its call is one of the easiest to recognize and remember: a slow, nasal "nyak nyak nyak" call that sounds for all the world like a toy horn. Close up it has reddish underparts, a whitish throat, and a black crown that is divided by bold white eyelines. As might be expected from its name, it feeds primarily on nuts from conifers, which it extracts by hammering open the seeds after prying them out ofthe cones with its strong bill. It too stores food, wedging its supplies into bark crevices.
Pacific-slope Flycatchers seem to prefer the cooler canyon and shaded north slope; they are best identified by their very obvious call: "pee-ist" or "ps-seet ptsick." Chestnut-backed Chickadees are usually detected first by their drawling "tsic tsic tsic tyee check check" songs; they sport chestnut backs, black heads and bibs, and bold white cheeks. And the Winter Wren's song is never-ending, like tinkling trills and tumbling warbles; it is a tiny reddish bird with a short tail that usually stays hidden among the mossy roots and branches.
Other birds that are often found along or over the Cliff Nature Trail include the Red-tailed Hawk; Common Raven; Golden-crowned Kinglet; American Robin; Townsend's Solitaire; Brown Creeper; Nashville, Hermit, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson's Warblers; and Purple Finch. And by midsummer, when birds that have nested below or to the north of the monument are either wandering or en route south for the winter, several additional species can be expected: Turkey Vulture, Band-tailed Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Rufous Hummingbird, Clark's Nutcracker, Varied Thrush, Pine Siskin, and Evening Grosbeak.
The Big Tree Trail (a 3-mile round trip) provides the visitor with a more complete perspective of the monument's biological diversity. Hiking the trail clockwise, one first experiences a relatively dry south slope with a Douglas-fir/oak community. Bushtits, Hutton's Vireos, and Nashville Warblers occur here during the breeding season. Not far beyond this area the trail enters an open white fir/Douglas-fir community where most of the same birds found along the Cliff Nature Trail can be expected. However, this area seems perfectly suited for the Hermit Warbler, a bird that usually stays in the upper canopy and requires patience for a good look. Locate it first by its rather distinct but somewhat varied song; according to my hearing it sings "che che che chezeee de-de" or "we we we wezeeee che-che," and sometimes it even adds an additional "che-che." In each case, the first three slightly ascending notes are followed by a buzzing note and two descending notes. Hoffmann described it somewhat differently: "The song varies greatly in different individuals; two common forms may be written 'wees-a wees-a wees-a wees' and 'tsip tsip tsip dee dee."' Once located, it can be readily identified by its all-yellow face, black throat, whitish underparts, and gray back with two white wing bars.
The Hermit Warbler is one the area's better examples of a Neotropical migrant, nesting in the temperate zone and wintering in the tropics. Hermit Warblers arrive on their breeding grounds in late April, nest in May and June, stop singing by July, and depart by mid-August. Although this species' entire nesting range is limited to the dense conifer forests of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, southbound migrants occur regularly as far east as Big Bend National Park, Texas, by the second week of August. They overwinter in the highland forests of northern Mexico and Central America. There they must find suitable habitat and food if they are to survive the winter and return to their breeding grounds the following spring.
By the time you reach the "Big Tree" and then follow the trail onto the north-facing slope, you will be entering a wetter environment that supports a few additional bird species. Agee and colleagues referred to this area as a "mesic white fir/Douglas-fir community." Although most of the birds are duplicates of those already observed, there is a distinct increase in breeding Yellow-rumped Warblers, Townsend's Solitaires, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and juncos. Here too are nesting Hammond's Flycatchers and Gray Jays, and along the higher ridge, particularly along the Mt. Elijah Trail, are Olive-sided and Dusky Flycatchers, Mountain Chickadees, and Hermit Thrushes.
Yellow-rumped Warblers are the most numerous songbirds here, and their spirited songs, three "tsit" notes followed by an energetic trill on a lower pitch, ring through the forest. The bird is an active warbler, often flying from perch to perch, and so observing one requires less endurance than for its yellow-faced cousin. The Yellow-rumped male possesses a black chest and wings, white belly, and five yellow spots: on its cap, throat, sides, and rump. Like the Dark-eyed Junco, the yellow-throated Yellow-rumped Warbler ofthe western states, earlier known as "Audubon's," was lumped with the white-throated "Myrtle" Warbler of the East. The two forms interbreed where they overlap in the North; they are therefore considered the same species, and birders often refer to them as "butter-butts."
Gray Jays, perhaps more than any of the other breeding birds, are representatives of the northern forests. Their range extends throughout the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. The Gray Jay is very different from the Steller's Jay, in both appearance and personality. It lacks a crest and adults are all gray with darker backs and whitish underparts; they often look like soft, fluffy toys. Grays often glide through the trees or down to inspect a hiker with muffled, low-pitched whistles and "cla cla cla" sounds. Like their crested cousins, however, they can be aggressive. They also store food for the winter, caching seeds, fruit, bugs, carrion, and even unattended nestlings on conifers. Their partially digested food is coated with sticky fluids from their mouths that help it to stick in place. This storage system permits them to remain on their territories throughout the cold winter months when little fresh food remains. It also allows Gray Jays to nest in late winter, when snow is still deep, before the arrival andlor growth of a new food supply.
Winter bird populations are only a fraction of what they are in spring and summer. Only a few of the more hardy species remain: Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Gray and Steller's Jays, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Redbreasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Darkeyed Junco, Purple Finch, and Evening Grosbeak.
In summary, the park's bird checklist includes eighty-four species, of which approximately fifty-seven are nesters. Of those fifty-seven species, none are waterbirds, eight are hawks and owls, and six are warblers.
Birds of Special Interest
- Pileated Woodpecker. This is the huge, red-crested "Woody Woodpecker" look-alike that has a bat-like flight and a loud "wuk wuk wuk" call.
- Hairy Woodpecker. The most common woodpecker, it sports a white back and black wings and tail; males also have a red crown patch.
- Steller's Jay. The monument's most obvious bird, it is usually present in the parking area, along the entrance trail, and at the cave entrance; it is all blue with a tall blackish crest and nape.
- Gray Jay. Watch for this all-gray, noncrested jay in the old-growth forest; it too can be ggressive and curious.
- Red-breasted Nuthatch. Usually detected first by its nasal "nyak" notes high in the conifers, it sports reddish underparts and a black-and-white head.
- Yellow-rumped Warbler. It is best identified by its spirited songs, black chest, and five bright yellow spots: on its crown, throat, sides, and rump.
- Hermit Warbler. A summer resident of the white fir/Douglas-fir forests, it has a yellow face, black throat, and whitish underparts.
- Dark-eyed Junco. Watch for this little bird on the ground and in the undergrowth; it has a black hood, buff back and sides, and flashy white edges on its otherwise black tail.