April 27, 2017
Ladder-backed Woodpecker male
Ladder-backed Woodpecker male
I first heard the sound early one morning near the beginning of March.  You knew spring was here, but the overnight lows were still in the upper forties to low fifties, so the house was not open though the sun had been up for a couple hours.  I was in the kitchen reading the morning paper, and Deva was in the computer room with her door shut, working her way through several household phone calls.  The sound was low, but high pitched and rapid.  A trill.  Frog?!

The question mark plus exclamation point say I was certain that’s what I was hearing but, although we have a small water feature out back, we had never seen or heard a frog in the yard or anywhere in the neighborhood.  Though I’m not really “into” frogs, having grown up in the Midwest I know frog sounds when I hear them, and even after all these years they still resonate with me and signify spring.

Mystified and thinking perhaps something in the genus hyla, I slipped quietly out the patio door, leaving it open, and listened again.  There, out by the pond next to the alley wall.  Three steps, stop, wait.  There it was again.  From force of habit I had picked up the binoculars as I opened the door.  Three more steps, stop, wait again.  Up higher, perhaps on top of the wall.  Deva, yelling from the computer room, “Is that a frog?!”

Why would there be a frog in the middle of an old neighborhood in the middle of the desert with no permanent natural water source.  The binoculars found nothing in the Texas Olive or on the wall behind it, but I hadn’t spooked the source.  It came again.  A trill.  Up higher.  Actually, much higher.

I let the glasses wander up the utility pole in the alley behind the wall.  There at the top in the shade between the crossbeams was a smallish bird.  Vertical.  Alright it was a woodpecker.  Gilas and Gilded Flickers visit our suet feeder daily, and the former has nested in our Saguaro.  We know their calls well, and have even learned to recognize them, sight unseen, just by their drumming cadence.  It took me only a moment to realize this smaller woodpecker in the shadows was neither Gila nor flicker, but Ladder-backed!  A male.

As it began drumming on the pole, my elation at seeing a new yardbird turned quickly to amazement because as it applied bill to wood . . . there was the “frog” sound again!  It was immediately obvious to me that I had never before heard a Ladder-backed drumming.  I’d watched them foraging along small limbs, a few exploratory stabs here and there, but never real drumming like this, presumably done in territorial defense or advertising for a female, same as the Gilas and flickers.

Subsequent research indicated Ladder-backs’ drumming, at 30 beats/second, is the fastest in the woodpecker family.  By comparison, Nuttall’s, a Picoides congener, does 19/second, flickers 25/second, and Pileateds 15/second.  The rapid, staccato beats, together with their soft but high pitched quality, produces a trilling effect.  Frog indeed!

A week passed and we heard Froggy every other day or so, once on another pole down the alley.  Deva even saw him on the suet one time, but by mid-April he must have concluded, as we had years before, this was no neighborhood for Ladder-backeds.  But we’re leaving the suet feeder out for awhile, just in case, and to celebrate our latest yardbird.