A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


A common year-round resident in appropriate habitat--which is most of the county excepting the extreme coastal strip and the low, marshy areas along San Pablo Bay, and the most densely forested areas that border Mendocino county in the far north. Usually encountered in fairly open woodland settings or along riparian corridors, but fairly common also in suburbia and in farmland, or even in city parks. Occasionally visits feeders. Usually solitary or in pairs during breeding season. Breeds in much of the county. Often heard before it’s seen, its distinctive call carries long distances (a loud rattle similar to that of the Kingfisher). Because Nuttall’s Woodpecker is confined almost entirely to California; this bird is often on lists of species birders visiting from outside the state hope to see here. 

Our only black and white woodpecker with a horizontally striped back and therefore easily separated from the somewhat smaller Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens, about 6.5 inches) and the considerably larger (about 9 inches) Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), both of which have a plain black back with a single vertical white stripe down the upper part. Otherwise, white underneath but lightly spotted with black on the flanks, belly, and vent. Note that this spotting is highly variable; some birds show very little of it, others more (see photos below). Red on the head of males confined to the back of the head (females lack the red).   

The rather similar-looking Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) occurs east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and east of the southern California deserts. As far as I can tell, that bird has never been recorded in Sonoma County. It differs from Nuttall’s Woodpecker by having more red on the head, more white on the face, having spotting extending higher up the back, and by having a wash of buff on the front of the face, at the chin, and the upper breast. The ranges, however, overlap little and hundreds of miles to the south of us. Practically speaking a black and white woodpecker in Sonoma County with a horizontally striped back will be Nuttall’s Woodpecker.

Trivia: Named for Thomas Nuttall, an early naturalist. According to Fix and Bezener, Nuttall authored the first field guide to North American birds,.  

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 79

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 283

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 93

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 288

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 318

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 381

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 356

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 232

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 270

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 212

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, p. 343

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 169-170

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 47

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 240

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 228

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 270

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 443

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 446

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Nuttall’s Woodpecker



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Nuttall’s Woodpecker (female), Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, December 2, 2012

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (male), Hewitt St., Santa Rosa, January 30, 2013

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (female), Arroyo Sierra Drive, Santa Rosa, February 8, 2013

This bird has considerably more spotting on the flanks than the bird above it.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Picoides nuttallii

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 29, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

For comparison: Downy Woodpecker (male), Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, November 12, 2013

Note single vertical stripe of white down the back