Saguaro Flowers and a Woodpecker

By Dan Weisz

The Saguaro Cactus is one of the symbols of the American Southwest and the Sonoran Desert we live in. And at this time of the year, saguaro cacti bloom.  Their flowers are stunning.  Each cactus will have many blooms during the season and each bloom opens at night and closes by the end of the next day.  The flowers are pollinated by many birds, insects, and (at night) by nectar feeding bats.  The fruit, when it develops later, is food for many of the desert’s inhabitants. 

These particular saguaro cacti are in my neighborhood and are only about six feet tall making viewing of the flowers easy for me. I drove up to the cactus one morning, turned off the car and sat and waited using the car as a photo blind.  One of the birds that feeds in the saguaro flowers and helps to pollinate it is the ubiquitous Gila Woodpecker.  I only had to wait a few minutes when the Gila’s call alerted me to his presence.  Gilas always have to announce their presence very loudly and very often! 

Gila Woodpeckers are generalists when it comes to their diet.  When visiting saguaro flowers, they can feed on nectar, pollen and/or insects that are attracted to the flowers. On this first flower, the Gila found a honeybee.

He continued to feed, burying his head deeply in the flower.  You can see the red cap on this bird, letting you know it is a male Gila Woodpecker.

And then he hopped over to the next saguaro cactus.  This series of photographs follow the Gila around as he dines.  I wanted to show you how the Gila Woodpecker goes about foraging for food.

He fed at one flower in the photo above and then on a neighboring flower below, again burying his head deeply.

The Gila Woodpecker then turned to yet a third flower on this saguaro.

He would always lift his head after each feeding, whether to just swallow or to look around his environment for other birds.

It was time to move on.

And he flew the short distance back to the original saguaro he had begun his meal at.

As he sat on the back flower, I noticed his face looked different than at the start.  His face was now covered in the yellow pollen of the saguaro flower.

A closer look reveals the dusting of pollen on his face and bill.  I also like how he is gripping two different flowers at this point.  He had moved over to some closer flowers on the saguaro.

The Gila Woodpecker then moved over to the next flower.  If you look closely, his left foot is now gripping two flowers at once.

One more plunge!

And then after dessert the Gila Woodpecker flew off into the desert and on to his next snacking spot.

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