Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ever since I started birding I wanted to see a woodpecker, so I was quite happy when I saw a Ladder-backed Woodpecker in a tree in my yard in Oct 2007. Since then, I’ve learned how to see these little guys and now, I’m getting to where I can find them on the trail fairly easily.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Yesterday, while doing my GBBC count by the pond, I heard the drumming and so walked in its general direction, stopped and waited for my ears to guide my eyes. It turns out, he was right in front of me, tapping away on the lower trunk of a tree, which gave me a new appreciation for the effectiveness with which his striped back camouflages him.

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker hides in plain sight

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker hides in plain sight

Once they start pecking, woodpeckers seem to be pretty single-minded birds and so as I was not deemed a threat, he let me get pretty close for a few pictures.

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker lets me get close

A Ladder-backed Woodpecker lets me get close

I watched him for a while as he pecked and tapped at the tree searching for bugs. They have a tendency to spiral around a tree, but this one stayed in place and let me take pictures. I guess he knew the only real threat was that I wouldn’t get a decent shot and there was no way he was going to be out of focus. Eventually I stopped shooting and just watched him do his thing, which is really the whole reason for going out to look for birds in the first place. Eventually, this tree grew tiresome and he flew off to the high branches of another one.

The info about Ladder-backed Woodpeckers on All About Birds is interesting. They eat mostly insects and arthropods that they pry and tap out of trees. The page also describes their habitat as “desert and desert scrub” neither of which really describes my neighborhood, though this is the northeastern portion of their range. They are considered year-round residents, and according to All About birds are declining in Texas. Despite any declines, here at the edge of their range, they are the woodpeckers I see most frequently in the neighborhood. The others are Red-bellied, Golden-fronted, and Downy Woodpeckers.

Update 2.21.09: Be sure to check out I and the Bird #94 at The Birder’s Report as well as The Weekly Woodpecker Roundup at Picus Blog.


  1. Super captures of the Ladder-backed Woodpecker James! I love seeing them even though they are not as obvious as the Acorn Woodpecker around here, we do get to spot them regularly down in the valley.

    I love your phrase, “waited for my ears to guide my eyes” as that is usually the best way to find birds. Also, I must whole heartedly agree that watching birds “do their thing” is the whole reason to look for birds in the first place. Isn’t that why we go out into nature, to drink it in and bathe in its beauty?

  2. What a lovely woodpecker and what excellent photos! We heard woodpeckers (great spotted woodpeckers, UK) drumming the other day, what a lovely sound…

  3. Now that I see your excellent photos, James, this could be what was on a front yard tree last weekend. We hear woodpeckers once in awhile but have only caught a few glimpses – once was pretty sure we had a Downy Woodpecker. It’s the small size that makes Ladderback likely for the recent sighting.
    What little rain we had was welcome…no wonder the Ladderbacks think that hanging around Austin is the proper scrub habitat.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  4. Thanks everyone. I was just out and saw that he was still working the same tree. Another one (a female) was pecking away at another tree. There’s nothing like watching woodpeckers.

  5. I’ve never seen a Ladderback shown against tree bark like that. They really have some super camouflage! Glad they are getting easier for you to find. I love going outside and just closing my eyes and listening to who all is around me. It really is amazing.

  6. Love the photo of the wp on the tree and how it blends right in with the tree trunk. Such a lovely looking bird

  7. Very nice photos of the Ladderback! This would be a life bird for me.

  8. Heather, there’s a lot to listen to out there all of a sudden now that it’s warming up down here.

    Kallen, Thanks for visiting. I never realized how well they do that until last week. I now understand why so many woodpeckers have striped backs.

    MaineBirder, Thanks. Too bad we can’t count birds spotted in the blogosphere. I’d have a bunch of lifers from looking around your site.

  9. Great post. I love watching woodpeckers. Isn’t it fun when you know where to find them and your eye gets trained!

  10. Ladderbacks are a daily bird around my house in Joshua Tree, California, just north of the National Park. They are probably the most bold birds around my feeders (hummer feeders and suet), and are the last to flee when I approach the feeder or they see me through the window. We also have Nuttall’s woodpecker in our area, and some crossbred individuals (according to my expert birder friends).

  11. Great captures, James! The ladderback is one woodpecker we don’t get down here (Texas Gulf Coast). He sure does blend in well with that tree trunk!

  12. …And then, looking at the All About Birds map, it looks like they DO occur here in or near the Houston area. I’ve definitely got to add that to my list of “need to look for” local birds!

  13. I haven’t seen a Ladder-backed in a long while. I remember the first one took me by surprise on an early mornng hike up a sun-drenched canyon in the desert of So. Cal. Your photos brought that back for me.

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