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Outside » Natural World

Woodpeckers of North America



Present-day birders will certainly recall the name, Roger Tory Peterson, as the leader in nature field guides. It isn't just birds that made up his list of interests, but subjects covering a wide area of natural history, from birds to edible plants.

Today, the Peterson Field Guides continue to proliferate, and thanks to local birder, researcher and owner of Paradise Birding, Stephen Shunk, we have the new "Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America."

Shunk has conducted years of research that covers a wide selection of North American woodpeckers. His reference work is a comprehensive guide to the natural history, ecology, and conservation of all 23 species of North America's woodpeckers—even the confusing and often misidentified sapsuckers, a first for any birding reference guide. And, like all Peterson reference guides, "Woodpeckers of North America..." offers authoritative, comprehensive information, accompanied by detailed text, maps, photographs and outstanding illustrations.

The author has included over 1,300 bibliographic entries, crafted in such a way to combine his engaging writing style with his extensive experience in field research and guided tours.

It is the participants of Shunk's Paradise Birding tours that he willingly thanks and recognizes; not only did they help fund his travels to the many woodpecker locations nationwide, but they also shared their observations that helped to make this new reference guide so unique.

Shunk wasn't always into woodpeckers. He spent his early years between Texas and California, both of which offered him a diversified view of the world around him.

Shunk got his first detailed look at the structure of the natural world while studying at Texas A&M in the 1980s. His love of that world took him to being the director of an environmental resource center where two of his pals loaned him a pair of binoculars saying something like, "Here try these, you'll like this...."

That was an understatement, for Shunk fell in love with birding and recalls that day vividly. "I'll never forget my first look at the Steller's jay!" Two years later he was doing his first bird study project for the San Francisco Bird Observatory on Colonial Waterbirds, nesting on a small island in the middle of the San Francisco Salt Works.

I caught up with Shunk in the Aspen Hall parking lot across from Shevlin Park. As I pulled in and parked, he had his camera to his eye shooting photos of a busy Hairy Woodpecker feeding young in a quaking aspen. All totaled, right from the spot where we were standing, we could see Hairy, Lewis's, William's Sapsucker, a hybrid couple: Red-Breasted/Red-napped Sapsucker, and Black-headed Grosbeak nesting, with a flicker calling. "But I can't find that flicker's nest," Shunk grunted, "and there's also a Northern Spotted Owl nesting here as well."

His first trip to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 1997 brought Shunk to live in Oregon. "I couldn't live in LA any longer after Malheur," he said, recalling those heady Malheur days. From that time on, birding for himself and making birding accessible for others became Shunk's goals in Oregon.

From 1997 to 1998 he was the manager of the Sisters Chamber, and during that time, with the help of Central Oregon birders, Judy and Dean Hale, Chris Falco, Sue Tank, John Gerke and others, he helped revive the East Cascades Bird Conservancy from the ashes of the old Central Oregon Audubon Society, which is today's East Cascades Audubon Society (ECAS).

Then one day everything came into focus for what Shunk wanted to do with woodpeckers. He was birding at the Cold Springs Campground west of Sisters. "I saw eight species of woodpeckers that incredible day!" Shunk almost shouted as he recalled that remarkable experience. "Eight of them..." he kept repeating, and then listed them from memory: Black-backed, white-headed, hairy, downy, Northern flicker, and three of the hybrid sapsuckers (which helped him get to know them better).

If it weren't for Shunk, there would be no Sisters Woodpecker Festival (renamed the Dean Hale Woodpecker Festival in honor of Hale's accomplishments in bird conservation during his presidency of ECAS). Shunk was instrumental in the momentum of this unique opportunity for woodpecker enthusiasts. (For more information about the festival, go to www.ecaudubon.org)

Shunk signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin in 2005, but he kept going over the 60,000-word maximum with more and more information that, at one time, doubled the original word count. After cutting five chapters he "knew" were essential to the book, his editors finally accepted the present publication, and as the old saying goes, "The rest is history...."

Shunk will be conducting several book signings and lectures in the upcoming weeks:

June 4, 6 p.m.

Woodpecker Talk | The Belfry, Sisters

July 22, 6 p.m.

Book Signing & Talk | Herringbone Book Store, Redmond

July 23, 6 p.m.

Book Signing & Talk | Paulina Springs Book Store, Sisters

August 30, 12:30 p.m.

Book Signing & Talk | Library Community Room, Sisters

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