Thursday, March 26, 2009

Woodpecker Heaven

The burned pines along the Mitchell Trail may look dead – more of them are lying down than standing up and the bark is charred and peeling – but they are actually full of life. Full of wood boring beetles and grubs, these trees are the perfect habitat for several species of woodpeckers.

The species of woodpeckers that have made their home on Mitchell trail include Hairy, Downy, Three-Toed and Williamson’s, and it’s clear they’ve been busy. The bare trunks are covered with perfectly round holes that look like they could have been made with thick nails, but instead were made by hundreds of strong beaks.

Over the crunch of dry gravel we could hear one knocking. Without the cover of pine needles it was possible to see three or four birds at one time as they flew from tree to tree. It’s a great place to go bird watching.

The Hairy Woodpecker is the most widespread woodpecker in North America, and has over 17 subspecies. Males have a red patch on their head and their plumage is black and white. They are 7-10 inches long with a wingspan of 13-16 inches. They spend most of their time foraging on the trunks.

Usually found alongside the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy woodpecker is smaller and prefers to spend time on smaller branches.

Most woodpeckers have four toes, but the Three-Toed has one less. The lack of a fourth toe may improve their pecking abilities but makes it harder to climb. They are black and white and the males have a yellow cap. They breed farther north than any other woodpecker, and New Mexico is at the southern tip of their range.

Because the adult male and female Williamson’s Sapsuckers look so different, for a time they were assumed to be males of two separate species, and the young were assumed to be females of those species. He wrote, “A nest was at length discovered, excavated in the trunk of a live aspen, and both the parent birds were secured as they flew from the hole, having just entered with food for the newly hatched young.”

Woodpeckers are still nesting in June, so it may be possible to see a woodpecker family leave its nest. The Mitchell trailhead is located on the corner of 45th Street and Arizona Avenue.

Snake Safety

What do you do when you’re working in your garden and you see a six foot snake coiled in the bushes, shaking its tail? Most people freak out and hack it to death with a shovel only to find out that it was a bull snake, and not a rattlesnake.

Instead of putting yourself or an animal in danger, the best thing to do is call the police dispatcher at 662-8222. They have a list of several Wildlife Center volunteers who will come to your house to remove snakes. The safe capture and release program has been going on for over 15 years. Volunteers are trained by Tom Wyant, who has been handling rattlers for nearly thirty years.

People’s unrealistic fear of snakes is what motivated Wyant to get involved in the safe capture and release program.

The only way most non-venomous snakes can defend themselves is to act like they’re venomous. They can make their heads look more triangular, they can coil up, and they can puff up their bodies to look like a rattlesnake. They even shake their tails, which can sound like a rattlesnake if they’re in leaves or dry grass.

“A bull snake will do anything he can to make you think he’s a rattlesnake,” said Jim Finley, a volunteer who specializes in relocating snakes. Too often, this self-defense mechanism is what gets them killed by humans.

The only poisonous snakes in Los Alamos are rattlesnakes. There are diamondback rattlesnakes and prairie rattlesnakes. Because a prairie rattlesnake has a blotchy pattern on their back, they look like bull snakes. The best way to tell the difference between a rattlesnake and a bull snake is to look at the tail. Bull snakes have pointy tails while rattlesnake tails are blunt.

Another way to tell if a snake has venom is if its pupils are elliptical instead of round…not that you’d want to get close enough to find out.

If you do see a rattlesnake up close, freeze. They react to movement and can see heat radiating off exposed limbs. “You can’t move faster than a snake,” warns Finley. “But you can scream bloody murder and it won’t hurt anything, because they can’t hear.”

Before trying to get away, it’s crucial to divert the snake’s attention. If you’re with someone, get them to distract the snake and then move. If you’re alone, a hat might do the trick. Drop it by the snake and then move.

Venomous snakes are more likely to bite if they’re cornered or threatened. There are volunteers in Los Alamos and White Rock who specialize in relocating snakes without causing injury to the snake or to anyone in your family. If you see a snake in your yard, call them at 662-8222.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Write About Your Most Memorable Baby Hike and Win $100!

If you’ve ever taken a baby or a small child on a hike, you’re bound to have a story to tell, whether it be about the animals you saw, what the kids said or the funny thing that happened.

Write it out and submit it to the Baby Hikes Writing Contest. It’s absolutely free to enter. The winner will receive $100 in cash and be published online at Entries must be 1,000 words or less. Photos are not required, but they are welcomed. Email the entries to
The deadline is June 15th.