Local beauties in the woodpecker family

My first blog on this website, written in October 2013, focused on woodpeckers; my first blog of 2020 was also about these birds (I know, the blog prior to that says 1 January but I posted it on 31 December; WordPress time is ahead of mine. 😊) Obviously, they are one of the bird species that I enjoy watching so to follow up my last blog, I’d like to share just a few more photos of three species that it’s my privilege to see locally. They are quite different from one another in appearance but equally beautiful and it’s always a delight to see them. (And no, it’s not snowing where I am; this is a photo from January 2018; we are supposed to have 70⁰ F/21⁰ C in a couple days!)

The Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is found in the Western hemisphere and looks quite different from many other woodpecker species. In the US, there are two sub-species. In the West, there is the red-shafted and in the East the yellow-shafted variant. The “shaft” refers to the undertail feathers. When the bird flies, however, you can also see the beautiful, otherwise hidden, yellow hues on the underside of other feathers.

 

Those yellow feathers also come into view when the flicker is upset, like this one was with a brown thrasher who came to the feeder pole where it was taking a brief rest. (This is pretty unusual; they don’t come to the feeders often.)

The flickers have some interesting distinguishing features: they are one of the few woodpeckers that migrate; they are the only woodpeckers that primarily searches for food on the ground, rather than in trees; and they probably eat more ants than any other North American bird!

And, depending on the weather (overcast, cloudy but light, sunlight), their coloring can look different – this is not only because the photos were with different cameras).

 

They also eat berries and seeds in the autumn and winter.

 

Like other birds, the flickers do nest in tree cavities.

 

You can distinguish males from females by the black moustache stripe, which the females lack.

 

 

The yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) is a woodpecker that can blend in quite well with the trees on which it seeks its food. Their mottled feather coloring often provides a good camouflage and you might not see one if it is sitting still.

The males have red crowns and red throats; the females have a white throat and the juvenile birds lack the reddish hues.

 

 

 

These woodpeckers may be followed around by other birds. For example, last year I saw ruby-crowned kinglets following sapsuckers at one reserve. Why would they do this? It’s because the sapsuckers drill shallow holes into trees which will then ooze out sap on which the woodpeckers and other birds feed. And the kinglets will find insects around the sweet sap. (At a children’s workshop on trees that I conducted last fall, one young boy asked me if humans could also drink the sap from their holes. I hadn’t researched that but answered that perhaps we would like the sap from a maple tree but not from an oak.)

 

The sapsuckers eat insects, berries and fruit like other birds.

 

Last in my line-up of local woodpeckers is the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus). The adult males and females look alike but adults and immature birds look very different indeed. While the mature birds are characterized by a deep red head, solid black back and white rump and belly, the juvenile and immature youngsters have brownish heads and bodies and black and brown striped rumps.

 

 

When they are transitioning to adult plumage, they will have mottled red heads and begin losing the brownish hues.

 

They have one of the most identifiable (for me) calls of the woodpeckers. Listen to this recording (Arkansas, 22 March 2005); it almost has a warbling quality to my ear, which many websites describe as a “churring” sound.

I’ve been lucky lately as there is an immature red-head reliably patrolling a certain territory in a forest that I visit so that I can be fairly certain of always seeing her/him sooner or later. This is a boisterous bird who loves to call and make its presence well known.

S/he doesn’t peck too loudly but if some vigorous drilling is required, this bird is up to the task. They have sturdy and powerful spike-like bills. The woodpecker beaks have three layers: the rhamphotheca (outer layer) is made of keratin; the middle layer is porous bone and the inner layer is made of mineralized collagen and contains a large cavity. The tongue bone (hyoid) winds around the bird’s skull and functions like a safety belt that helps cushion the brain when they are engaged in high-velocity and impact drumming and drilling. On the whole, however, these woodpeckers tend to drill less but fly out often into the air to catch insects on the wing.

They eat insects, fruit, berries, eggs of other birds but also really enjoy nuts, especially acorns and beechnuts. They make stashes of nuts in tree cavities, crevices and under bark for later consumption.

When depositing or withdrawing from holes in trees, they will use their tails like other woodpeckers to help them balance as they perch.

 

A surprise for me was that they also occasionally eat cambium and tree bark.

 

If climate change continues and results in an overall warming trend of plus 2 degrees, these birds could lose up to 64% of their range. Yet another reason to do what we can to decrease our energy consumption and advocate for policies and regulations to reduce global warming due to human actions.

 

One more interesting note about woodpeckers (for the time being): did you know that there are no woodpeckers (including flickers and sapsuckers) in the polar regions, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Madagascar?

 

I’ll end with a quote from an interesting book that I am currently reading. The author, Robert Macfarlane, describes research into the “wood wide web” and then muses on what it could mean for humans:

 

“If there is human meaning to be made of the wood wide web, it is surely that what might save us as we move forwards into the precarious, unsettled centuries ahead is collaboration: mutualism, symbiosis, the inclusive human work of collective decision-making extended to more-than-human communities.” (Underland; my emphasis)

 

Creepers and peckers who attract our attention (but these are good guys!)

No, I’m not referring to plants, humans or an anatomical feature but rather avian woodcreepers, tree creepers and woodpeckers! During our nature outings in Costa Rica in August 2019, they were definitely crowd-pleasers and reminded me of how much these birds are appreciated elsewhere, too. So today I’ll share with you some of my photos of these species in Costa Rica, The Netherlands, South Africa and the USA.

 

The insectivorous woodcreepers are endemic to the neotropical regions where there are some 57 different species. They tend to be brown in color and look similar, making identification a challenge at times. They hold their bodies upright, using a stiff tail (a similarity to how woodpeckers maintain a vertical position). Although they mainly look for insects in tree bark, they also will eat army ants. They have strongly clawed toes to help them cling to tree trunks.

 

Research has shown that the woodcreepers may use one of two techniques to capture insects. The “probers” look behind bark, mosses, lichens, leaves, etc. to find their prey. Those who engage in “sallying” launch themselves into the air to catch insects in flight after their movement up a tree has flushed them.

 

The plain brown woodcreeper (Dendrocincla fuliginosa) is distinguished from other woodcreepers by its lack of streaking or stripes.

   

The cocoa woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus susurrans) tends to be a more solitary feeder that looks for insects in bark.

The streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii) was aptly named. It tends to be a solitary probing feeder.

 

The wedge-billed woodcreeper (Glyphorynchus spirurus) is the smallest species of woodcreepers; it also has a shorter bill, which helps in identification. Research has shown they tend to favor ants, beetles, spiders and pseudo-scorpions for their meals.

 

 

The brown-billed scythebill (Campylorhamphus pusillus) is obviously distinguished by its very long, curved bill. It was raining and the bird was not sitting still so my photo isn’t great; I really wish I’d gotten better photos of this species (a goal for the future).

In North Carolina, we have a similar type of bird – the brown creeper (Certhia americana). I cannot hear their high-pitched call and therefore must rely on noticing movement to catch sight of them.

 

Watching them demands some concentration as they are continually on the move as they probe the bark and lichen. They really blend in well with the bark of their trees of choice. It’s a challenge to keep them in view.

 

They tend to nest in hardwood trees but prefer conifers for foraging. Like the neotropical woodcreepers, they have impressive claws to help them cling to the vertical tree trunks. An interesting fact: “By eating a single spider, a creeper gains enough energy to climb nearly 200 feet vertically.”

 

The short-toed treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) that I saw in the Hemmeland nature reserve in The Netherlands in 2018 is a similar bird. Like the brown creeper, it flies to the base of a tree and then works its way up the trunk as it searches for insects to eat. (It looks almost identical to the Eurasian treecreeper, so I hope it is identified correctly!)

 

 

The woodpeckers I’ve been able to see in Central America include several species that have similar-looking cousins further north. The golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) has a yellow nape and patch at the base of the bill in much of its range. However, there is a Velasquez’s variant of this species that has a red cap and nape. I saw this one in a botanical garden in Quintana Roo, Mexico, in 2012.

If you look at the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), which we see a lot in North Carolina, they look quite similar.

 

The Hoffmann’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) reminds me of the red-bellied species. The males have a red crown; the females do not. With their pale yellow napes, these birds look like a “pastel” version of the red-bellied species to me.

Red heads seem to be a popular “accoutrement” for the woodpeckers. The black-cheeked species (Melanerpes pucherani), seen in Arenal, Costa Rica, this past August has a red nape but a yellow forehead.

 

The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) has a white forehead but also sports a red patch on the back of its head. Fewer than 9% of birds engage in cooperative breeding (where several related or unrelated adults cooperate in raising broods) – the acorn woodpeckers do this through coalitions of adults who nest together.

 

Another woodpecker with yellow hues that I’ve had the privilege to see is the golden-tailed woodpecker (Campethera abingoni), which I saw in Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2009. Like the above-mentioned woodpeckers, in this species the male also has red hues on its head.

 

In North Carolina, two very similar smaller woodpeckers are characterized by males who sport a small red patch on the back of the head and females who lack the red coloring. The hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus, below left) is the larger of the two species; the downy (Picoides pubescens) looks almost identical except that it is slightly smaller, has a shorter bill and no white spots on the outside tail feathers.

 

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) looks like a larger version of the hairy and downy birds but it lacks any red patches anywhere on the head. Their common name refers to an almost invisible red streak (“cockade”) at the top of white cheek where it meets the black feathers atop the head. Unfortunately, this species (the only woodpeckers to make their nest holes in living trees) is under increased threat as the US Fish and Wildlife Service may remove some of the protective measures that have helped increase the population.

 

The great spotted woodpecker male (Dendrocopos major) that I saw in The Netherlands in 2018 does have a red patch on the back of its head; as in other woodpecker species, the females lack the red spot. This species also sports an obvious red belly (much more so than the red-bellied woodpecker!). An interesting feature of this woodpecker is that they undergo a complete moult after breeding that lasts up to 120 days.

 

 

 

The rufous-winged woodpecker (Piculus simplex, right) only put in a very brief appearance this past August, but made it obvious that they, too, have a red crown. The golden-olive woodpecker (Colaptes rubiginosus) continued the red accented plumage – the males complement their crimson crown with a red “moustachial” stripe. There are 19 sub-species with slightly different coloration.

 

 

The large lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus, left) in Costa Rica closely resembles the pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus, right) that we have in North Carolina. The males of both species can be distinguished by the red stripe going down their faces and both types of woodpeckers are known for their drumming.

The pale-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis) looks a bit like the lineated and pileated species but they are even larger birds that feature an entirely red head. The adults have a light-colored beak that gives them their common name; immature birds have darker bills that lighten with age. The females can be distinguished by their black instead of red throats.

We were lucky to see a pair of these birds foraging along a large stream, accompanied by a third bird – perhaps one of their young from the previous breeding season? This species has not been studied thoroughly – for example, the incubation period and time from hatching to fledging are still both unknown.

 

Finally, I’ll end this long blog with two more woodpeckers that we saw in Costa Rica. There were smoky brown woodpeckers (Dryobates fumigatus) in a couple places we visited but it was difficult for me to get a good photo in the overcast rainy conditions. They are rather plain birds but again the males are distinguished by a red cap. These were in a tree with black-cheeked woodpeckers.

I had a bit more luck photographing the chestnut-colored woodpecker (Celeus castaneus). This attractive bird has reddish brown plumage and a shaggy crest. Its head feathers may be lighter in color and the males have bright red cheeks.

 

 

As there are a couple more woodpecker species where I live that I also enjoy seeing, I’ll feature them in the next blog (a shorter one!) Have a nice day!

Kinglet capers – defending territory!

A birder recently remarked on a Facebook feed that ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) seem to have a diet consisting solely of caffeine and Ritalin, which might account for the almost constant motion in which these lovely little birds seem to spend much of their time. They really get revved up, however, not when they are feeding but when they are defending what they consider to be their territory.

Unlike many other bird species, these kinglets don’t tend to hang out in groups of their peers. On the contrary, they often chase away others of their kind and this can turn into an actual campaign against an intruder that can last for quite lengthy periods.

 

This was brought home to me when I saw a vigorous little male who was confused by his own reflection in an installation at a local garden, aptly entitled “Self-reference”. The NC Botanical Garden organizes a yearly outdoor sculpture competition and this year included Jonathan Davis’ entry comprising a series of shiny glass balls arranged in a tall column supported by encircling metal struts and rope-like cables.

The orbs provided the kinglet with mirrors in which he could see himself, although he was obviously convinced that another male was trying to take over his winter domain. The raised red crest was like waving a flag in front of a bull. (These kinglets usually have the red crest hidden; they only raise it when excited or perturbed.)

My friend Lucretia had seen him attacking the “intruding bird” when she was at the Garden and she alerted another photographer, Mary, and me to his presence. Mary headed over to the site right away and got a lovely photo of Edward looking at himself. (I named him Edward as the meaning of that Anglo-Saxon name is “guardian of prosperity.”)

 

I only got to the Garden later the next morning, but Edward was still spending his time trying to drive away the interloper.

 

The sight of another male kinglet with HIS crown raised undoubtedly only incensed him further.

The day that I was there, he took frequent breaks to restore his energy levels by flying to nearby trees and shrubs to gather food.

He also took some time now and again to sit quietly on the sculpture’s metal rings – when his back was turned to the balls, he didn’t see the invader and could catch his breath, so to speak.

 

It was interesting to see how he tried to peck at the opposing bird, over and over again despite the fact that he was bumping his beak on the sculpture.

 

 

After observing him for a couple hours, I decided to leave Edward alone. However, there was a Garden party that evening and I returned to see the sculpture lit up with reflections of nearby Christmas lights – Edward was still busy in the late afternoon challenging his rival!

 

 

When I returned a couple days later, the sculpture had been removed, to the relief of some birders who were worried that Edward was going to wear himself out and perhaps be compromised when temperatures were due to drop considerably. As I had seen him feeding frequently, I was not too worried about that, but I am glad that calmer times have now returned for him so that he can spend his coming weeks in a more peaceful atmosphere. Hope to see you in your normal foraging mode soon, Edward!

Kinglet capers – finding food and enjoying short rests

It seems that at least once a year, ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) feature in my blogs; they are one of my favorite bird species and I always enjoy seeing them again and again.

These small birds are bundles of feathered energy, almost constantly in motion as they seek insects, which form the bulk of their diet.

 

They are only slightly larger than ruby-throated hummingbirds: 9-11 cm (3.5-4.3 in) long versus a length of 7-9 cm (2.8-3.5 in) for the hummer.

When they scour the vegetation for food, they may be flicking their wings continuously.

Fortunately, they do take little breaks now and again, so we can admire their beauty.

These breaks often last less than minute, however, and often are even briefer so you have to be ready and waiting to capture a photo.

I’ve been lucky this fall to find a few spots where I know some kinglets are hanging out, so I get to see them quite regularly.

My yard-visiting kinglet has returned for the winter season as well; I usually see him mostly at the suet feeder, where he will hover like a hummer as he takes quick bites of peanut-flavored vegetable lard laced with grits, oatmeal and nuts. He is a bit more gray in color than many other kinglets.

I’m wondering if this year’s bird is the same one who has been here the last 5 years. Unlike my previous visitor, I’ve seen him take a seed from a feeder as well. This has not happened before, even though it is known that they eat berries and seeds in winter.

This year’s bird also seems a bit shyer than my kinglet(s) from previous years. When I lift up my camera, he tends to take off. My resident the last years was not shy at all, a couple times actually perching on the suet feeder as I carried it to the pole. Still, my yard visitor’s anxiety has been nowhere nearly as obvious as that of another kinglet whose story I will relate in the next blog!

 

‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊