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1,000 miles from home, acorn woodpecker makes rare appearance in Northland

The bird was spotted in Carlton County, more than 1,000 miles out of range.

acorn woodpecker
This acorn woodpecker has been hanging around the yard of Russell Stewart in Carlton County, some 1,200 miles from its nearest usual home range in the southwestern U.S.
Contributed / Laura Erickson
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CARLTON COUNTY — A woodpecker normally found along the Pacific coast and the desert Southwest has been hanging out in Carlton County.

The female acorn woodpecker is visiting the yard and bird feeder of Russell Stewart. He posted the finding on the website eBird.com last week and throngs of birders have been rushing to the site to see the rare find ever since.

Mostly absent from the region for decades, one Duluth birding expert suspects they might be making a comeback.

Duluth-based birding expert Laura Erickson said there have only been two known sightings of the bird in Minnesota previously, in 2009 in Brainerd's Crow Wing State Park and in 2016 near Detroit Lakes, but neither hung around as long as this one.

“None have ever been found in Northeastern Minnesota before this one,’’ Erickson said.

Stewart said the woodpecker first showed up July 2, but he wasn’t able to get a good photo at first. But on July 3, it was lingering at his bird feeder to eat sunflower seeds.


Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

“I was able to get a couple of pictures that allowed me to identify it,’’ Stewart told the News Tribune. “It is a very distinctive bird, so it can't be mistaken for something else. … I have to admit that I was very surprised when I identified it as a non-migratory species that inhabits California and the desert southwest.”

The first person who showed up after Stewart posted on eBird, which provides a latitude and longitude, but no other location data, was famed Duluth birder Kim Eckert. He warned Stewart that many more birders would follow.

“We set up some ground rules for birders. And since then I would estimate that at least 100 people have come to see the bird,’’ Stewart said. “It can usually be seen from the road.”

The flashy acorn woodpecker's head is boldly patterned in black, white and red, punctuated with wild-looking white eyes that give it a clownish look. It's a medium-sized bird, bigger than a downy woodpecker and a bit smaller than its close relative, the red-headed woodpecker, a common resident of Northland forests.

Acorn woodpeckers find and cache large quantities of acorns in granaries or acorn stashing trees, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Some of these granary trees have up to 50,000 holes drilled, stocked, and maintained by extended acorn woodpecker families.

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Carpenter Thomas Spence's side job is capturing the essence of the wild along the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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