I finally drove to the Sockeye Burn today, even though my husband told me that freezing rain and/or snow was likely by early afternoon. The Sockeye Burn area is about 80 miles north from our house, past Wasilla and Willow (between Anchorage and Fairbanks). The over 7000-acre fire occurred in June of 2015, and shortly afterward, birders discovered that both American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers had found the burned dead trees.
When I began to plan my Alaska big year last fall, I realized that I should really go to the Sockeye Burn for these woodpeckers, which are often difficult to find in much of Alaska. Today I no longer needed a Three-toed Woodpecker, which I saw in Anchorage earlier this month, but I still lacked the Black-backed Woodpecker.
I was sort of hoping to find someone to do the drive with me, because of my unfamiliarity with the area and because I am a wimp when it comes to solo driving on icy roads that are remote and a long way from anything else. That didn’t work out, so yesterday I planned to do the drive myself, but chickened out due to the rain and near-freezing temperatures. I vowed to try it today, and I did!
The drive there was uneventful. After about 1.5 hours, I reached Sockeye Ave., and drove in to where others had posted woodpecker sightings last fall toward the end of Chum St. (I am putting in road details if anyone else wishes to find it.) The roads through areas of unburned and burned trees was snowy but not slippery and I was optimistic. A moose preceded me for part of the drive. I parked the car and walked the road south. I did not leave the road because everything was posted with Keep Out signs, so any Black-backed Woodpeckers needed to be near the road for me to find them.
It was very quiet. A couple of Gray Jays, usually noisy, quietly flew by. I hoped that any woodpeckers would be a bit noisier, but all was silent except for periodic Boreal Chickadee talk and the sound of a redpoll. After coming to a driveway, I went back to the car and moved it to the corner of Chum and Randall and walked east to the end of Randall. A single small woodpecker, I assume a Downy, flew silently over the road and disappeared. I saw no other birds before reaching the end of the road.
On my walk westward back to my car, suddenly I heard a very quiet irregular tapping, and saw a woodpecker, a male BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER, working diligently up a very black trunk. He got up to about 20 feet and then flew down toward the base of another burned trunk, where I got more pictures.
I probably would have stayed for hours, delightedly taking more photos, but my phone rang. It was my husband telling me that the forecast storm was coming in from the south, and that I needed to get moving to try to get back to Anchorage before it got too bad. I ran back to the car, jumped in and headed out. By the time I got halfway home, it was raining, and then there was heavy rain mixed with snow, and then mostly snow cutting visibility way down. The good news was that the temperature stayed about 37 degrees and the precipitation did not seem to be freezing on the road. I was so elated about the woodpecker, that the drive home, though a bit scary, seemed to zip by. A great trip!