Fabulous flickers – my faves!

Several birders of my acquaintance have a particular love for warblers. These birds often have stunning plumage, and it changes in many species between breeding and non-breeding seasons. I enjoy seeing the warblers, too, but it’s the woodpeckers that tend to keep me watching for longer periods when they appear. And I’m lucky that all the local species visit my yard at least occasionally, like the Northern flicker that startled a brown thrasher one year.

Unlike warblers, the woodpeckers’ plumage doesn’t often evoke words of wonder and appreciation. They don’t change from breeding to non-breeding plumage and some species even look almost identical. But I find them fascinating; my favorite (although I really like them all) is that stunning and fabulous flicker.

There are two major kinds of flickers in the USA. In the West, the main subspecies has reddish feathers in flight and is called red-shafted. In the East, we have yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus). When these birds are simply perched, you mostly just see their muted tan coloring with dark spots on the breast.

4 Northern flicker PC061413 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

From the back, you can see a red heart-shaped spot on their neck.

5 Northern flicker PC099651 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When they fly away, you may also see a white patch on their back near the base of the tail.

The males have a thick black “mustache” extending from the beak.

12 Northern flicker P1300399© Maria de Bruyn res

The females lack this feature.

9 Northern flicker P9209500 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

11 Northern flicker PB296255 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

10 Northern flicker P1050369 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

In reviewing the photos I’ve taken of them, it appears that I see the males more frequently than the females. The males also seem less reluctant to come out into the open when I’m observing them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I do wonder if the females are generally shyer.

It’s when they take off in flight with wings spread or when they flutter their wings while balancing on branches that you get to see their marvelous yellow feathers.

13 Northern flicker P9209948 © Maria de Bruyn res

14 Northern flicker PB041778 © Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

15 Northern flicker PC099864 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

16 Northern flicker P2032611© Maria de Bruyn res-sgd

The flickers distinguish themselves as the woodpecker species that very often seeks its food on the ground. Their preferred meals comprise insects, although in winter they also forage for fruit and seeds.

17 Northern flicker P3030826© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They stick their long bills deep into the ground when looking for a favored food — ants. Many articles online say that one flicker’s stomach was found to contain more than 5,000 ants but I couldn’t find the original study reporting that finding anywhere.

18 Northern flicker P1279550© Maria de Bruyn sgd

Barbs on the flickers’ lengthy tongues help them catch the ants and other insects, such as flies, butterflies, and moths.

19 Northern flicker PC152102 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds have an elongated hyoid bone that helps support their tongue, which can extend up to 2 inches (5 cm) beyond their bill. This also comes in handy when they are probing snags and fallen logs for meals.

20 Northern flicker PC151992 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Northern flickers also have large salivary glands that re-coat their tongues with a sticky substance each time they stick them out — an extra aide in catching those ants!

21 Northern flicker PC099801 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When you see flickers in trees around springtime, they are often looking for nesting spots. They may choose trees with softer wood in which to excavate holes or they may use nesting cavities created by other birds.

24 Northern flicker P9198553 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

22 Northern flicker P9198517 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

23 Northern flicker PC099751 © Maria de Bruyn

A couple years ago, I discovered flickers following around pileated woodpeckers as they moved from tree to tree to peck holes.

25 Northern flicker P9209692 © Maria de Bruyn

26 Northern flicker P9209697 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I wasn’t quite sure why the flickers were pursuing their larger cousins, but now I think they were checking out holes that the larger woodpeckers had made for nests. This seems to be a recurring behavior as this year I saw flickers (in the same natural area) starting the same behavior. The pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to mind too much.

27 Northern flicker P9198613 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

28 Northern flicker P9198614 © Maria de Bruyn. res sgd

In another natural area, the flickers have used cavities made by red-headed woodpeckers for their nests. The two species seem fine with brooding their young in the same snag at the same time.

29 Northern flicker P4217370© Maria de Bruyn res

30 Northern flicker P4291831 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

The flickers can live up to 8-9 years at least and likely migrate back to the same areas each nesting season.

31 Northern flicker PB158825 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

While the overall numbers of Northern flickers are decreasing, they are not considered a threatened species.

32 Northern flicker PB158826 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

34 Northern flicker PC152197 © Maria de Bruyn resThey adapt well to living around human settlements but can be threatened by fewer available nest sites due to urban development, snag removals, and competition for nest holes, as well as heat waves that affect nestlings and wildfires that destroy their habitats.

I hope these beauties stay around my living space for a long time to come!

33 Northern flicker P1300407 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

The happy hermit thrush – a photo tour

hermit thrush P1311108 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While working on a woodpecker series, I decided to post a few mostly photo-oriented features, so there aren’t such long gaps between blogs on my site. First up is a photo exploration of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), whom I’ve been seeing fairly often since last fall and through this winter.

hermit thrush PB191885 © Maria de Bruyn res

They are really lovely birds. They prefer to eat insects most of the year (e.g., flies, bees and wasps, beetles, caterpillars, and ants). Apparently, they also will eat small amphibians and reptiles, but I’ve never seen them eating a frog. My spottings of them have shown, however, that in the autumn and winter, they certainly enjoy berries.

hermit thrush P2032491 © Maria de Bruyn res

In my observations, they seem to eat quite a variety, which I believe include those of greenbriers (Smilax), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and hollies.

hermit thrush P2032496© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush P1311058© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1311071 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush PC240748 Maria de Bruyn-ed sgd

The hermit thrush is not considered to be frequent visitors to people’s gardens, but I’ve been lucky to have them visit in winter to take baths and eat juniper berries (from Eastern red cedars, (Juniperus virginiana).

hermit thrush PB158866© Maria de Bruyn

I do see them more often out in nature reserves, however.

hermit thrush P1311125 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds don’t mind sitting out on a tree branch during a gusty day when their feathers are blown around a bit.

hermit thrush PB191749© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They have muted colors but a nice rusty-colored tail to help identify them. They also tend to flick their tail frequently.

hermit thrush P1311120 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I tend to think of these thrushes as good-natured birds. I haven’t seen them arguing with birds of other species, but I was surprised recently when I encountered two hermits disputing foraging space in a nice sunny area.

hermit thrush P1278796© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278797© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278798© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278799© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Ultimately, one bird flew away and then the other took off as well.

hermit thrush P1278800 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

In the past, I didn’t see hermit thrushes very often, but perhaps I’ve just gotten more observant or better at predicting where they might be. It’s always a pleasure to stop and watch them for a while.

hermit thrush PB191962 Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191950© Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191952 Maria de Bruyn sgd

Finally, one more photo but not of a hermit – this is a lovely wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) that I had the good fortune to encounter in the woods near Jordan Lake. You can see the much bolder and better defined breast spots on this bird, as well as its more reddish coloring. Many people think the wood thrush has the prettiest thrush song. That’s not my opinion, but I certainly do think they are visual stunners!

wood thrush PA017517 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Late-morning hawk watching – Part 2

Cooper's hawk PA063998 © Maria de Bruyn res

A few weeks after watching a red-shouldered hawk hunting at a pond’s edge (previous blog), I had the good fortune to spot another raptor busy at a water source.

Our area had had a dry spell and the creek in a nearby city park was fairly low. Various birds were calling loudly on both sides of the creek, and I hoped to photograph some of them. The birds kept out of sight in the foliage, however.

When I finally peered down at the creek, the reason for the avian chorus became obvious. A beautiful Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was wading in the shallow water.

S/he kept looking up and around as the other birds vocalized non-stop; they were warning one another of the predator’s presence, with the blue jays being especially raucous.

At first, I thought the hawk wanted to bathe but was hesitating because of the warning racket being broadcast by the other birds.

At one point, the raptor sat down, but it didn’t splash in the water.

S/he then stood up and ruffled the feathers that had been in the water.

All the while, the Cooper’s hawk peered up and around.

Then the bird began peering down at the water. I didn’t see any creatures there, but the raptor did.

Finally, the predator stopped watching the other birds, dipping its beak into the water while protecting its eyes with its nictitating membranes.

A few times, the hawk came up with a small fish or other water creature but I couldn’t really tell what the prey was since it was swallowed rather rapidly.

After about 20 minutes, the raptor seemed satisfied – or it was tired of the cacophony accompanying its hunting foray – and s/he flew up into a nearby tree. Later, I spotted the bird standing in the creek further downstream; perhaps a bath was going to take place after all. I didn’t stay any longer, however, as chores were calling to me. So I left grateful for the chance to spend time with this gorgeous creature on a late sunny morning. 😊

The maker of spoons – a bird delighting people worldwide

1 roseate spoonbill P8040500 © Maria de Bruyn card (2)

In different countries, the bird genus Platalea has given rise to similar common names for birds in this group, all based on their unique bills. In Dutch, lepelaar used to mean “maker of spoons” but now the first dictionary definition refers to this type of bird. Spanish speakers gave these avians the moniker “spatula bird” (pájaro espátula), while in many other languages they are called the “spoon birds” (Romanian, Icelandic, Bahasa Indonesia, Shona, etc.). In English, we call this unique animal the spoonbill.

6 roseate spoonbill P8040996© Maria de Bruyn res

Many people find spoonbills fascinating, including me, so it was with happy anticipation that I traveled to see an immature roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that had decided to forage in our county. When I arrived, I scanned the cow pond where the bird had been seen, but the only animals there were several large cows! I decided not to wait around since the cattle were enjoying the water and it was unlikely any birds were going to join them.

A couple days later, I returned, parked along the road and walked up to the fence to peer down at the pond again. A great egret (Ardea alba, below) was foraging, some barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) were occasionally swooping over the water, and some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were wandering around but no spoonbill was in sight.

2 great egret P8040974© Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

3 roseate spoonbill P8040309 © Maria de Bruyn resIn contrast to other birds, spoonbills do not vocalize much except for some low grunts made while they are feeding. I didn’t hear any bird sound and after some 20 minutes or so, I thought perhaps the young spoonbill had decided to move on. Then suddenly s/he emerged from grasses bordering the pond and I was able to observe the bird for quite some time.

4 roseate spoonbill P8040325© Maria de Bruyn res

5 roseate spoonbill P8040961© Maria de Bruyn resThere are six spoonbill species worldwide; the roseate spoonbill lives in North, Central and South America. The other five species have white plumage, while the roseate spoonbill adults have a white neck, bare head, bright pink back and rump feathers and a greyish bill. The immature birds have feathered heads their first three years and pale pink feathers. The color on our county’s visitor showed up more brightly when the sky was overcast rather than sunny.

The spoonbills’ coloration comes from their food. Their diet consists of crustaceans, snails, fish and aquatic insects found in both fresh and salt water. Aquatic invertebrates have pigments called carotenoids and when the spoonbills eat them, their feathers turn pink.

7 roseate spoonbill P8041138 © Maria de Bruyn res

Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.

8 roseate spoonbill P8040580 © Maria de Bruyn card (2) 9 roseate spoonbill P8040517© Maria de Bruyn res

10 roseate spoonbill P8040340 © Maria de Bruyn resWhen chicks are born, they do not yet have a spoon-shaped bill; it only begins to flatten out when they are 9 days old; the final shape is achieved by 39 days. The bill can be 5.7 to 7.1 inches long (14.5-18 cm). It is about an inch wide just beneath the birds’ eyes and then widens to about 2 inches at the end.

It might seem that these very large bills could make life difficult for the spoonbills but they use these spatula-like appendages efficiently when feeding. Their nostrils are located at the base of the bill so that they can breathe while foraging.

11 roseate spoonbill P8040346 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their technique is to stalk slowly, leaning forward with their bills submerged as they swing their heads from side to side. Israeli scientists discovered that when the bill sways back and forth, it creates tiny whirlpools that suck up prey submerged in the water. When the prey touches the bird’s bill, it snaps shut as nerves at the bill tip are stimulated; the prey is then usually swallowed whole.

12 roseate spoonbill P8040425 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 roseate spoonbill P8040365 © Maria de Bruyn res

Spoonbills prefer to feed in shallow water that is usually less than 5 inches deep. This would account for the fact that the spoonbill I watched was making circuits around the edge of the pond, never going into the center.

14 roseate spoonbill P8040395© Maria de Bruyn res

15 roseate spoonbill P8040566© Maria de Bruyn res

16 roseate spoonbill P8040703 © Maria de Bruyn res

One thing in particular struck me as the cow pond bird walked and stalked. When s/he raised his/her head and opened the bill, it looked to me as if the spoonbill was laughing or at least looking very friendly and smiling!

17 roseate spoonbill P8040521© Maria de Bruyn res

18 roseate spoonbill P8040427© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

19 roseate spoonbill P8040524© Maria de Bruyn

20 roseate spoonbill P8040825 © Maria de Bruyn resIn the USA, spoonbills have traditionally bred in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. After breeding, they disperse. It is especially year-old birds who are increasingly being seen along the Eastern coast. To find them further inland had been more unusual but in recent years they seem to be moving away from the coast as well. This year several spoonbills have been spotted in the Piedmont region in addition to our Orange County visitor.

21 roseate spoonbill P8040483 © Maria de Bruyn res

23 roseate spoonbill P8040502 © Maria de BruynBy the late 1800s, the roseate spoonbill was endangered in North America because the birds were either killed for their feathers (to make decorative screens, fans and hats) or they abandoned their nests because they were near great egrets who were being killed for the millinery trade. When that trade ended, their numbers rebounded but rising sea levels, degradation of water quality and loss of wetlands has now decreased their breeding sites. The spoonbills are still listed as a species of concern in Florida and Louisiana.

22 roseate spoonbill P8040377© Maria de Bruyn res

As climate change progresses, increasing numbers of roseate spoonbills are starting to move north. Protection of wetlands in our and other Eastern states would therefore benefit this species, as well as other animals that depend on this type of habitat. And more of us outside the southernmost states may get the chance to observe these unique birds in the future!

A star performance!

 

Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

       

A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.

 

Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.

 

 

When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.

           

When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.

   

I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.

 

When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!

   

After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.

 

American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.