Woodpecker Wonderland Festival: A Labor of Love

Organizing and leading bird tours is hard and occasionally thankless work. I learned long ago that dealing with folks who are paying for a recreational experience presents a special set of challenges. It's funny how we expect perfection during our leisure time even though most of us will readily admit that life is an exercise in imperfection. If one wants to learn how to run a successful bird festival, they need to look no further than the Woodpecker Wonderland Festival (WWF).

Based at the historic Camp Sherman resort community east of the Santiam Pass in Oregon's central Cascades, the WWF is the brainchild of Steve Shunk, who is a fanatic about woodpeckers and is also the owner of a birding tour company, Paradise Birding. On the high-elevation slopes east of the Cascades crest, the forests are made up of dense stands of a variety of firs, spruce, and pines. Moving downslope, the forest opens up and is dominated by Ponderosa Pines. It then transitions to the even drier juniper/sage and then shrub-steppe vegetation communities of the high desert. The narrow riparian strips that border the countless small streams in the area are populated by aspens, a favored nesting tree of many woodpecker species. Fire events, typically caused by lightning strikes, are frequent in this rain shadow landscape, where summer precipitation is negligible. This combination of factors makes Oregon’s central Cascades a haven for woodpeckers. Eleven species of piciformes occur here regularly, a tally that cannot be matched anywhere else in North America.  


Much of the forest near the summit of Santiam Pass has been burned by a series of recent fires. Openings, like this one at Cache Lake, attract species like Mountain Bluebird and Lazuli Bunting and of course, lots of woodpeckers.

In addition to Steve's boundless enthusiasm for woodpeckers, this festival benefits from an amazing local birding community that is equally enthusiastic about promoting the spectacular local birding opportunities. Many of the volunteer leaders are heavily involved in the East Cascades Bird Conservancy. Formed in 2002, the ECBC is a relatively young, but  vibrant organization that seems to add activities and projects on a weekly basis. They offer regular field trips, organize work parties to maintain local birding sites, coordinate a fall hawkwatch station at nearby Green Ridge, sponsor a state-wide winter raptor survey, and monitor three study areas where they have built and placed nest boxes for Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Currently, they are working on enhancing site guides and maps for the Cascades Birding Trail. 


Woodpecker Wonderland Festival organizer Steve Shunk (right) shows off a jumping spider he found during the Sunday afternoon trip.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s second annual Woodpecker Wonderland Festival (June 5-7, 2009), prospective leaders and other local birders spent many man-hours scouting the field trip routes for active nest holes of the region’s eleven woodpecker species. They also paid close attention to other species that might be “target” birds for birders coming to the festival from out of the area. The festival offered a variety of half-day field trips on Friday, both half-day and full-day trips on Saturday, and half-day trips on Sunday morning. These trips were limited to eight participants and two leaders per 12-passenger van. 


With modest-sized groups it's much easier to make sure everyone gets to see the bird. In this image our Saturday trip hones in on a male Lazuli Bunting.


Food for the Woodpecker Wonderland Festival was catered by the Lodge at Suttle Lake. They even provided an assortment of sandwiches to take along on all-day trips. During this break at Scout Lake, we enjoyed a delicious lunch, beautiful weather, and most importantly an opportunity to talk about something other than birds.

As a visiting leader (I live 100 miles to the west in Eugene, Oregon), all I had to do was show up and jump in a van each morning. I can’t recall enjoying leading field trips more. It was great to spend one-on-one time with trip participants, teaching them calls, offering identification pointers, and getting to know them on a personal level. I talked about birding the Apalachicola National Forest and seeing my life Limpkin at Lake Munson with Ed from Tallahassee, Florida, for whom these fabulous birding sites are a short drive from home. Amanda, who grew up in southern Indiana, and I discussed funny figures of speech I learned while living in central Indiana. I spent several minutes with Kevin, a comparative local who lives 30 miles up the road at Crooked River Ranch, taking pictures of an adult Northern Goshawk and talking about photography--at that pursuit, Kevin is an expert and I’m a neophyte. 


This adult Northern Goshawk was surprisingly accommodating considering that its nest was only a couple hundred yards away from this perch. We took a few shots and moved along.

When we stopped by the home of one of the local birders in hopes of seeing the flock of Pinyon Jays that visits regularly, he and his wife welcomed our group onto the second story deck of their home, giving us a bird’s-eye view of their feeders. The Pinyon Jays never appeared, but the visiting birders  surely arrived home telling stories about the hospitality they enjoyed on their trip to Oregon. This wouldn’t have happened if we were leading around a busload of birders, instead of small groups. 

The last of the scheduled field trips ended around noon on Sunday, and it was then that the most impressive field trip of the weekend took place. Throughout the weekend several leaders made it known that they would stick around Sunday afternoon and assist anyone still looking for one of the woodpecker species. I joined the two vanloads of birders who gathered for the ad hoc Sunday afternoon trip. I was mostly interested in seeing some areas that I’d never visited and hanging out with those leaders who had been on other field trips. We organized and routed this trip on the fly. Our goal was to see that every participant completed the “Wonderland Slam” (getting all 11 species for the weekend).


This stop at Dry Creek produced Black-backed and White-headed woodpeckers, which were life birds for at least a couple of the folks who stuck around for the Sunday afternoon trip. During this four-hour trip we encountered 10 of the 11 species of woodpeckers that regular occur in this area. Our only miss...Downy Woodpecker.

In just a few hours we tracked down all three sapsuckers (Williamson’s, Red-breasted, and Red-naped), Northern Flicker, plus Lewis’s, Black-backed, American Three-toed (saw a pair copulate), White-headed, Hairy, and Pileated woodpeckers. Several in the group picked up life birds as we made our way to several staked-out nest trees. In addition to the woodpeckers, any and all requests for other target birds were at least entertained and in some cases realized. By 5:00PM on Sunday night there were no unsatisfied customers!


On a clear day, the central Oregon Cascades offer a stunning panorama of snow-capped peaks, including Mt. Washington, which is shown in this image.

In two short years this festival has already created a “can-do” culture, where the leaders seem to enjoy showing folks life birds as much as those who are getting lifers enjoy seeing a species for the first time. One woman on my Saturday field trip told me that this is “one of her favorite birding festivals”--high praise for a brand new festival.

All photos taken by Dave Irons


Beautiful! My wife and I visited the Portland area last May and drove to Mt. Washington one day. It was gorgeous.


Not only do you have a great ear for birding and an amazing eye for photographing awesome sights, you are also a gifted writer.

hello there nev sorry iv took so long i think this is there contact and details,ring them for advice , mention mellsy put you on

Raymie, when you come over this afternoon, we’ll show you the holes in our house that the wokdrecoeps have made. They’re pretty birds, but they sure can make some damage.


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