07 October 2016

Woodpeckers of Rare Occurrence Seen in Niobrara Valley

Two woodpeckers of rare occurrence have recently appreciated fire-created habitat in Niobrara River valley. On September 29th, a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers were observed for a time on the north bank of the river at the Niobrara Valley Preserve property of The Nature Conservancy.

Mace Hack, state director of the group, reported the observation to the online NEBirds forum. A picture of one of the birds, as taken by Chris Helzer was subsequently sent. Hack reported that the pair of birds were followed for 15 minutes amidst a setting of cottonwood snags and other dead trees. "The woodpeckers were moving together ‘fly-catching’ from snag to snag," Hack indicated.

Image Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy

This species of woodpecker is recognized by birders for its behavior of chasing flying insects, much like other bug-chasers such as the Eastern Bluebird.

The report is especially significant since there is only one other previously known record for this species in north-central Nebraska.

It was in 1899 when a specimen was taken within the region. This happened on April 19, 1899, according to details provided by the regular reports by the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union. There was no indicated author. In 1934 and 1944, two reports from Stapleton are the only other known occurrences within the overall sandhills region, that is unless you would care to consider a 1907 report from the southward Dismal River valley.

The habitat setting of dead tree snags is a result of the Fairfield Creek fire which started on July 19 and continued through July 29, 2012 when it was 100% contained. A great expanse of the Conservancy property was burned in both Keya Paha and Brown counties. Overall there were 43,955 acres burned in Keya Paha county; 117 square miles along the Niobrara river. Two other named blazes occurred eastward along the valley, according to "When Smoke Filled the Sky" which is a book of mostly pictures associated with the event.

Messrs. Hack and Helzer were regularly visit the preserve to monitor the vegetation following the fire occurrence.