Lewis's Woodpecker Project
When we protect the lands and waters of Central Colorado, we are protecting the wildlife that depends on these areas as well. More than often, this protection includes rare species like Lewis's Woodpecker, a species that has, like many cavity-nesting birds dependent upon old-growth trees, steadily declining population numbers. Lewis's Woodpecker is dependent upon large, dead Ponderosa trees where the wood is soft enough for it to drill a nesting cavity. But in some areas, including our valley here in Chaffee County, the birds primarily use old cottonwood trees. And unlike many woodpeckers, Lewis’s is primarily an aerial forager; it flies out from an open perch to capture flying insects in a fairly open habitat. Such areas are likely often along rivers, creeks, or wetlands, and have large trees.
As an organization committed to protecting resources and encouraging stewardship, Lewis’s woodpecker stood out as a good indicator species for letting us know if we are indeed being good stewards of the land, particularly of riparian habitat. One concern we can readily observe, is the loss of large cottonwood trees throughout the valley, certainly in part due to the drought conditions over the recent past. This wouldn’t be so critical if we saw lots of new cottonwoods replacing the old, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Also, the old, dead, or dying cottonwoods are frequently removed and yet these are still critical habitat for not only Lewis’s but also a host of other species.
To implement this indicator-species-approach to tracking our impact, we created a volunteer system to locate, monitor, and report the woodpecker's potential numbers and activities in our local communities. First, we started by placing “Have you seen me?” flyers in target areas and set out to build a volunteer base. We then trained over 70 individuals interested in assisting with the surveys. The training was two-tiered: In Tier 1, volunteers received information about Lewis’s Woodpecker natural history, survey protocols, and eBird. eBird is the world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project, with more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year by people around the world. eBird data documents bird distribution, abundance, habitat use, and trends through checklist data, but the best part is the program includes a basic scientific framework that is already in place for land trusts to access and use for free online. In Tier 2 of our training, volunteers received additional instruction on assessing and documenting woodpecker habitat.
This special project, which ran from May 2017 to April 2018, resulted in 150 Lewis’s Woodpecker sightings entered into eBird, 65 phone calls and emails from the flyer advertisements, and the participation of nearly 100 community members in training and presentations highlighting the program.
As a result of the project and its findings, two conservation projects are moving forward, in part, due to nesting Lewis’s Woodpecker populations on the properties. One project is a 500-acre ranch in Chaffee County where the ranch owners became interested in our Lewis’s Woodpecker Project and are now working with the Conservancy to place a conservation easement on the property.