Birding: Birder accidentally goes for 1-day woodpecker record

  • Article by: JIM WILLIAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2014 - 2:46 PM

A legendary football coach plays a cameo role in a birder’s accidental quest to see nine woodpecker species in a day.

The sighting of an elusive black-backed woodpecker triggered a single-day birding quest for local woodpeckers.

Photo: Jim Williams • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Former Vikings coach Bud Grant played a minor role in my single excursion into the world of birding records.

This came to mind around New Year’s Day because the end of a year is the time for tallying records. Some birders, for the fun of it or because their type-A personalities get the best of them, count species seen.

This is done within a specified period of time, most often a year. Records are usually kept for a specified geographic area — a world, continent, state or county.

The only geographic records I hold are for our yard, plus the one that involved Coach Grant.

For six years in the 1990s my wife and I lived in the woods of Burnett County, Wis. We received this newspaper by mail. One day I found on the outdoors page in the sports section a story about Coach Grant’s Wisconsin hunting cabin not burning down.

Usually the cabin in the story would have burned to the ground, but not this time. The cabin is near Gordon, Wis. It also was very close to a small forest fire. A red pine plantation upwind of the cabin had burned. The proximity of the coach’s cabin to the flames apparently merited mention. A slow news day, perhaps.

Anyhow, with the story was a photograph of a black-backed woodpecker.

Black-backed woodpeckers are difficult to find, and are, among other things, fire specialists. (They have evolved black backs so when hanging from a charred tree, digging out grubs, they are camouflaged.) My thought when putting the paper down was, the birds probably are still there, staked out, as birders say.

My wife and a friend and I drove to the fire scene that afternoon. We saw three of these beautiful woodpeckers before we got out of the car.

I went back the next day. I saw black-backed woodpeckers, plus a northern three-toed woodpecker — a species that is really hard to find.

Driving home it occurred to me that I had seen pileated, hairy, and downy woodpeckers on the trip up. Wisconsin, like Minnesota, has nine regularly occurring woodpecker species. I had seen five by noon. See four more — red-bellied, red-headed, yellow-bellied sapsucker and flicker — and I win the woodpecker lottery.

Sapsuckers and red-bellied woodpeckers were common in our yard. I saw them easily. I found the red-head in the Crex Meadows wildlife area near our home. Come suppertime I was one bird short: no flicker. I was hungry and tired. I went home. I showered, changed clothes, had a gin and tonic, and ate.

With an hour of daylight left, I gave it one more try. Parking on a township road with wooded edges, I walked and listened. Often birds are more easily heard than seen. Hear it I did, then saw it sharply in my binoculars. A woodpecker grand slam.

A friend, a wildlife biologist familiar with Wisconsin, told me he doubted that such had ever been done before (and why would one try in the first place?). There is no way to check. I’m comfortable with the assumption that the record is mine.


Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at Join his conversation about birds at

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  • A Big Year record

    The North American Big Year, perhaps the premier event for birders who seriously chase and list species seen, has a new record holder.

    There was a 2011 movie titled “The Big Year.” It tended toward the easy caricature to which birding is sometimes vulnerable. But Big Years are serious efforts.

    The old record was 745 species. The new record is 749, held by Neil Hayward, 40, of Cambridge, Mass.

    How serious is a Big Year? Hayward flew 193,758 miles, drove 51,758 miles, was at sea for 147 hours, and spent 195 nights away from home. Jim Williams

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