Downy Woodpecker Wednesday

Today’s Woodpecker of the week is the smallest Woodpecker in North America: the Downy. The little Downy is acrobatic, versatile, and found throughout most of the country.

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)


Downy Woodpeckers are black and white with straight chiseled bills and wide shoulders. Their upperparts are black with white checkered patterns on their wings and a white stripe down their backs. Their underparts are white and their tails are mainly white with some black spots. Their heads are boldly striped, and males have a red patch that the female lacks. A Downie’s bill is about half the width of their heads.

Male Downy Woodpecker (Image via


Downies are found throughout the majority of the United States and Canada, with the exception of extremely northern Canada. They are rarely seen in the Southwest United States. They are more common in the East than the West.


Open deciduous woodlands, orchards, shade trees, willow groves, backyards, and city parks

Female Downy Woodpecker (Image by David Horowitz)


Mainly insects, as well as seeds and berries. Downies are common at backyard feeders where they may eat suet. Sap consumption is more common in the winter and bark foraging occurs more in the summer. Due to their small size, Downies not only forage on the trunk but on smaller limbs as well as weed stalks and shrubs. Their chiseled bills helps them get right under the surface of the tree bark so they can pierce insect tunnels.


Downies are monogamous and renew their pair bonds starting in the fall and continuing into the winter. They have a few different courtship/bonding activities. Bonding activities include drumming on separate trees until the male approaches, foraging together, and the butterfly flight. The butterfly flight includes the pair chasing each other through the trees with their wing held high and flapping slower,weaker wing beats. They may loop around the territory multiple times during this display. The female usually chooses a nest cavity with the male approving, which is usually in some part of a dead tree.

A clutch size (number of eggs) for a Downie’s brood is usually 3-8 eggs. Incubation by both parents begins around when the last egg is laid. The incubation period is about 12 days. Hatching is asynchronous, meaning the eggs will hatch within a few hours (or sometimes days) of each other. The chicks in the eggs who hatch first have a higher chance of survival since they can start begging for food sooner. Therefore, Downy chicks who hatch later have a high mortality rate. Both parents will bring bill-fulls of insects to feed the young. About 20-25 days later the young will fledge and follow the parents for up to 3 weeks.


Highly vocal. A descending whinny, that starts with a single or double notes with a rapid acceleration and the pitch doing downwards (sometimes called a rattle call). This whinny is used to announce location, defend a territory, or in solidifying a pair bond. Common call is a sharp pik! or peet!

Fun Facts:

  • Many people have trouble distinguishing Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers since they are similar in appearance. An old trick that’s used is “Downy dinky, Hairy huge”. To be more specific, a Downy is around 6 inches (like a House Sparrow) and Hairys are around 9 inches (like an American Robin). A Hairy’s bill is about as long as its head is wide, while Downie’s bills are smaller than their head’s width.
Downy (left) and Hairy (right) (Image from by Gary Mueller)
  • Downies are the second most abundant bird in North America (the Northern Flicker is #1 in that category).
  • They are one of the 10 smallest Woodpeckers in the world.
  • Females tend to forage more on the tree trunk and larger limbs. Males tend to forage on smaller limbs and weed stems.
  • Tapping is used to describe when a Downy is excavating on a tree. Tapping is slower than drumming, which is generally used for pair bonds and is much quicker.

If you want to learn more about Downy vs. Hairy identification tips, check out Project Feederwatch’s (from the Cornell Lab) article listed below. (Project Feederwatch is where I got the above downy/hairy picture).

Project Feederwatch Downy vs. Hairy Woodpecker

The Most Perfect Thing

I am a pretty avid reader, and as you might guess, I spend a lot of time reading about birds. I decided that I wanted to share these books with you. So today is the first BirdNation book review. If you read this blog I assume that you have an interest in birds, so I thought you may find some worthwhile reading material through this feature.

I just finished reading The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg by Tim Birkhead. Tim Birkhead is a British zoologist and works at the University of Sheffield as a professor of behavior and evolution. He has written numerous book about birds and their behaviors, including the popular Bird Sense in 2012. In this book, Tim Birkhead takes you on a journey of how the egg is developed. The journey begins in late 19th century England with oologist (a scientist who studies bird eggs) George Lupton. George Lupton had an extensive collection of Common Guillemot eggs, which are now in the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, England. Birkhead refers to George Lupton and Common Guillemots as his prime example throughout the text. Along the way we learn about other scientists who made contributions to bird biology and egg production, as well as learn about the eggs of numerous bird species.

The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Image by BirdNation)

Birkhead starts with the outside of the egg and work his way in. The first few chapters talk about the structure and physical appearance: egg shape, shell thickness, and color. There are two chapters concerning color. Birkhead first talks about how eggs become the colors they do and then talks about why.

The middle chapters of the book are about what happens inside the egg and focus on the albumen and the yolk. The albumen, also know as the “egg white”, forms around the yolk. It provides nutrients for the embryo and protects the yolk. The albumen is mainly 90% water and 10% proteins. The egg yolk is the primary food supply for the embryo. Birkhead goes into detail about these subjects and there are detailed diagrams throughout the book to help the readers visualize these features.

The final sections of the book are all about laying, incubating, and hatching. Topics explored include how the egg leaves the oviduct (where eggs travel from the ovaries to outside the body), incubation lengths of different species, and the process of how the chick leaves the egg (which is not as quick as you would think!).

The Most Perfect Thing is a fascinating book. Although everyone is familiar with eggs, many people don’t know about the process of egg formation and hatching, so it’s an eye-opening and amazing process to learn about. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in learning about the science behind eggs. It is not a leisurely read, however. Besides the history portions about Lupton and other scientists/studies, most of this book reads like a text book. One thing I like about Tim Birkhead is his ability to make these scientific studies accessible and easy to understand to casual readers as well as more science-minded individuals. Even if you are a casual reader, I recommend this book if you are into learn about bird biology and want to know more the science of eggs. There are so many amazing thing to learn through this book. I’m sure by the end you’ll agree that the bird egg is as close as you can come to The Most Perfect Thing.

Woodpecker Wednesday!: Acorn Woodpecker

Welcome to Woodpecker Wednesday, friends! Tomorrow is the first day of Autumn, so it’s time to switch our weekly bird feature. A few weeks ago I wasn’t really sure which family or birds I wanted to feature for Autumn until I went to Barnes and Noble. That’s where I found and purchased Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America. From that moment I knew I had to do a weekly Woodpecker feature.Woodpeckers are one of my favorite families.

There are 22 North American Woodpeckers in what is called the Picidae family.To kick of the fall season I chose to start with the Acorn Woodpecker.

I have not seen an Acorn Woodpecker in the wild, but Dave did when he recently went to California. However, I do remember the first time I ever saw an Acorn Woodpecker, and it was quite a surprise.

I happened to be watching Texas Hummingbird cam from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There was a flurry of hummingbirds for a few minutes and then the feeder was empty. All of a sudden something large slammed into the feeder. I remember thinking “What in the world is that??” It certainly was not a hummingbird. I couldn’t help but laugh because I thought it was so absurd. Turns out that sometimes Woodpeckers will drink from hummingbird feeders using their long tongues. This one happened to be an Acorn Woodpecker.

Surprise! (Screen shot taken by BirdNation from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Hummingbird Cam)

Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)


Acorn Woodpeckers have a distinctive face that is usually described as “clown-like”. They sport a red cap and have yellow eyes. Their upperparts are solid black and their white chests are streaked with black. Their upper-tail coverts, rumps, and wing undersides are white. Their tails are wedge-shaped and their bills are straight.

Acorn Woodpecker in California (Image by Steve Ryan via wikimedia commons)


Western Oregon and California, parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and throughout Mexico/Central America


Oak woods, mixed forests, foothills, oak-pine canyons and mountains. They are usually always found in habitats that feature oaks. They are tolerant of humans, so they will live in areas where acorns and places to store them are plentiful.


They are omnivores, and mainly eat acorns and insects. They also eat fruit, seeds, and other nuts. Unlike many other Woodpeckers, Acorn Woodpeckers live in large groups. Together these groups harvest acorns in the fall to build caches for the winter months. The oaks they used are considers “Granary trees”. Members of the flock work together and drill holes to store the acorns. They will take turns guarding the tree while others forage. Acorn Woodpeckers will glean insects off leaves. They are unique because they are one of the  only Woodpeckers that almost never excavate in wood for insects.

Working on the granary tree (Image via the US Dept of Interior’s Twitter page)


Acorn Woodpeckers are one of two North American Woodpeckers to practice cooperative breeding. This means that individual birds that are not the chick’s parents will help take care of the young. Some Acorns remain monogamous, while others practice polygynandry, where multiple females breed with multiple males in the same nest. They don’t do many courtship displays, but individuals tend to stay in the same territory throughout their lives. Non-breeding helpers may be up to 5 years old and are related to the parents. Typical family groups range from 4 individuals to 15 (which is the maximum).

Acorns have 1-2 broods per year that consist of 3-6 eggs per clutch. The eggs are incubated for 11-14 days by both parents and eventually the helpers. After being cared for by the parents and helpers, the young fledge between 30-32 days. Like other woodpeckers they nest in tree cavities, usually in oak trees.

Acorn Woodpeckers (Image via pintrest)


Sounds like raucous laughing: wheka wheka! or RACK-up, RACK-up. A vibrant ddddrri-drr!

Fun Facts:

  • A “granary tree” can hold upwards of 50,000 acorns. Sometimes Acorn Woodpeckers also use man-made wooden structures such as utility poles and fenceposts.
  • Although rarely seen, sometimes family groups will engage in vicious fights that may last for days. Apparently these “battles” occur when a breeding member of the family dies and a “spot” opens up for breeding. These fights happen between the family members and “rival” families who are trying to intrude.

Audubon recently posted an interesting video of one of the “brawls” that was caught on camera at Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary in California. If you want to read the article and see the video check out the link below.

This Video Shows Just How Nasty an Acorn Woodpecker Brawl Can Be by Erica Cirino

John Heinz NWR

Before I tell you about my recent trip to John Heinz Nation Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia I have some exciting news! President Barack Obama created the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine Nation Monument and is located 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Monument will cover 4,913 square miles and protects underwater mountains (seamounts) and canyons that are just as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In July I wrote about this and shared a petition from Audubon in my post called Protect the Puffins. This Monument will help protect the Puffins and other marine wildlife. What a great victory!

Saturday was my birthday, so naturally I wanted to celebrate by going birding. I chose John Heinz NWR in Philadelphia as our destination. The 1000-acre refuge is located in Tinicum Township and is right next to Philadelphia International Airport. In 1972 John Heinz, formerly known as Tinicum Wildlife Preserve, became America’s first urban refuge. Despite being in a major city next to the airport, over 300 species of birds have been accounted for, and 85 species nest there. John Heinz consists of tidal marshes, impoundments, and woodlands that supports all kinds of wildlife.

We spent about 2 1/2 hours walking the impoundment trail that loops around the marshes and takes you through the woodlands. We counted over 32 species. Here’s some the highlights:

  • Egrets everywhere! As we crossed the first bridge over the marsh we saw numerous egrets. There were at least 15 Great Egrets and 8 Snowy Egrets. Snowy Egrets are one of my favorites (which is why they are the mascot for BirdNation), so I really enjoyed watching them hunt. We continued to see egrets throughout the walk.
  • We saw numerous raptors, including the resident Bald Eagles. We went to John Heinz last December and saw the Bald Eagle nest, but this is the first time we’ve actually seen the eagles there. There were 2 and they were sitting on the nest preening. We also saw at least 4 Broad-winged Hawks, a few which seemed to light juveniles. Other raptor species were Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.
  • A Northern Waterthrush. Despite having “thrush” in their name, Waterthrushes are part of the Wood Warbler family, not the Thrush family. There are two North American Waterthrushes: the Northern and the Louisiana. They look very similar, being both small, brown streaky birds. However, Louisiana Waterthrushes have a broader and whiter eyebrow, are not as streaky on their breast, and have buffy flanks. The Northern Waterthrush has brown flanks, has a streakier breast, and a yellowish tint to its plumage. Northerns are usually found foraging on the ground and pumping their tails. You can see from the pictures we took that this bird had a yellow hue, so we determined he was a Northern Waterthrush. He was hopping around flipping leaves over to look for insects.
Northern Waterthrush (Image by David Horowitz)

Other species we observed included Wood Ducks, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellowlegs, Warbling Vireos, an Eastern Kingbird, a Semipalmated Plover and many more.

Great Blue Heron wades through the mud (Image by BirdNation)

If you ever happen to be in the Philadelphia area and looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city I recommend checking out John Heinz NWR. This refuge offers a nice escape from our over-developed world.

Be on the lookout for our new weekly bird profile series: Woodpecker Wednesday!

Piping Plover: Seashore Saturday

Hello friends! It’s the most hectic time of the year for me: back to school (this year as a teacher and a student). Everyone is one the move again, and birds are no exception: fall migration is underway. There are so many exciting things going on this time of year. Autumn begins on Thursday the 22nd, and right now we are in the midst of warbler and shorebird migration. Yesterday was Plover Appreciation Day, which is a day to raise awareness of ground-nesting plovers around the world and how we can help them. Today there are two personal special things happening: the last Seashore Saturday of the season and my birthday! I decided to combine those last two events by choosing one of my favorite shorebirds to write about: the Piping Plover. Starting next week I’m going to kick off Woodpecker Wednesday for the autumn season. I also have a birding trip post coming soon and a book review, so stay tuned!

Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)


Piping Plovers are small, stocky plovers. They have pale upperparts, white underparts, and short bills. Their legs are orange-yellow and they have black feathers on the tips of their tails and sides of their wings. During breeding season they have a black, narrow breast band while juvenile and non-breeding birds have a pale band. Their bills are orange with a black tip during breeding.

Piping Plover on Long Beach Island, NJ (Image by BirdNation)


Breeding: northern Atlantic Coast, parts of the northern plains (mid-Canada, the Dakotas, Nebraska)/Great Lakes region (although population have dramatically declined there.) Winter: southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast


Sandy beaches, sand bars, tidal flats, alkali lakes


Insects, crustaceans, marine worms, invertebrates. Piping Plovers are ground foragers who run a few steps then stop to look for food and peck around.


Piping Plovers are a threatened and priority bird, partly due to the fact that they breed on the ground. Piping Plovers lay their eggs in a scrape in the sand, usually some distance from water. The problem is that they blend in so well with their surroundings that their nests can easily be destroyed by beachgoers who are not aware the plover eggs are there. Because of this, many Atlantic Coast beaches have blocked off areas were Piping Plovers and other threatened shorebirds, such as terns and Black Skimmers, nest.

Piping Plovers lay on average about 4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for 26-28 days. The young are downy and leave the nest a few hours after nesting to look for food. The parents brood the young, but the female usually deserts the chicks after a few days and the male cares for them. The chicks fledge between 21-35 days after hatching. Not much is known about the Piping Plover’s development.

Piping Plover chick on Long Beach Island (Image by David Horowitz)


peep, peeto! or a series of pehp, pehp, pehp when agitated.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes Piping Plovers are seen in small groups, but they are usually solitary and don’t mix with other shorebirds often.
  • Piping Plovers are native to the United States and just barely disperse into Mexico. They also winter in The Bahamas.
  • Male Piping Plovers have thicker breast bands during breeding season, which is one of the only ways to tell the sexes apart.
  • During breeding, males display elaborate courtship ceremonies, such as flights that feature dives and stone tossing. Males create multiple scrapes in the ground for nest sites and female will choose the site she likes best to camouflage it.
  • Like, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Piping Plovers use the “broken-wing display” to distracted predators from their young.

Please be mindful of your surroundings while visiting beaches. Make sure to obey any signs you see, especially if they are telling you to avoid a shorebird nesting area. Piping Plover populations are under 10,000, so it’s important that we are taking proper precautions to protect their habit.

Piping Plover parent and chick (Image by Johann Schmacher via

Whimbrel: Seashore Saturday

For BirdNation’s 100th post, we are featuring the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world: the Whimbrel.

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)


Whimbrels are large sandpipers that have a distinctive long down-curved bill. They are one of the eight species of the Curlew family (genus Numenius). They are buffy and streaky overall, with long necks/legs. They have a dark crown and an eye stripe. In flight they are mainly white with no visible field marks. They  have strong wing beats and their wings are very pointed.

Whimbrel (Image by Terry Hartley of Due South Photography via


Whimbrels are found in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres and winter on the coasts of 6 continents. Whimbrels in the Western Hemispheres winter from the coasts of the United States all the way down to the end of South America. They breed in Alaska nad Northern Canada.


Shores, beaches, mudflats, tundras, marshes, and grassy fields


Invertebrates, crabs, insects, berries. Whimbrels use their long down-curved bills to probe just below the water or pick up food on the surface. When eating crabs they crush the shell and remove the legs.

Feeding Whimbrel (Image by Ganesh Jayaraman via


During courtship males perform circular aerial flights while whistling. Nests are a shallow depression on the ground in the tundra and lined with natural materials. 3-5 egg are incubated by both sexes for 24-28 days. Like many other shorebirds, the young will forage on their own while being watched by the parents. The parents are very protective and will even attack humans who are in their territories. The young’s first flight occurs between 5-6 weeks.


Rapid, loud pip-pip-pip-pip-pip! Usually between 5-7 notes.

Fun Facts:

  • Some Whimbrels migrate from Southern Canada to South America, which can be around a 2,500 mile non-stop trip.
  • Whimbrels are sometimes referred to as “Short-billed Curlews”. They look similar to Long-billed Curlews, but has a shorter bills.
Whimbrel in flight (Image via

End of the Yellow-rumped Warbler?

A few years ago I was at Strawbridge Lake during spring migration. I was newer to birding so my identification skills were pretty limited; I was still very reliant on my field guide. Near a small stream was a tiny black and yellow bird. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The most distinctive feature was a yellow patch of tail feathers. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, sometimes referred to as “butter butts” by birders. The Yellow-rumped Warbler was the first warbler that I learned to identify, so it holds a special place in my heart. It opened a whole new world of warblers for me. I’m always excited to add a new warbler to my life list.

There have been a lot of articles floating around recently about Yellow-rumped Warblers. They are widespread throughout North America and have two main subspecies: the Audubon’s of the West and the Myrtles of the East. Whether you see a Myrtle or Audubon’s, on your life list, the bird would be considered under the name “Yellow-rumped Warbler”. It hasn’t always been this way though.

“Myrtle” (Image by Kelly Colgan Azar via

Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers were once considered 2 different species on people’s life lists. It wasn’t until 1973 that American Ornithologists’ Union decided to “lump” (as Kenn Kaufman, author and ornithologist refers to it as) many species together after new scientific research emerged. In 1969 ornithologist John Hubbard published a paper about how the two species hybridized where their breeding ranges crossed in western Canada. It seemed like people couldn’t tell the difference between the two in this range, and they ended up becoming the “Yellow-rumpled Warbler”. It was a disappointment to some people who “lost” entries on their life lists, but it became widely accepted.

“Audubon’s” (Image by Gregg Thompson via

But things may be changing for the Yellow-rumped Warbler. Ornithology has grown immensely since the 1970s, especially in the field of genetics. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the many bird species to have their genetics carefully studied by scientists. A paper recently released by David Toews and others found that although they may hybridize in that Canadian region, the Myrtles and Audubon’s are actually very genetically different. Its believed that the Myrtles and Audubon’s separated over the last million years due to ice sheets. The region that they hybridize in is only about 80 miles. Toew and the other researchers believe that there must be some genetic weakness in these warblers to keep them from spreading outside of this area.

But that’s not all. Yellow-rumped Warblers may be split into 4 different categories, not just 2. The “Goldman’s” Warbler of Guatemala is also genetically distinct. The “Black-fronted” Warbler, which lives in the mountains of northern Mexico, is still being studied. “Black-fronted” are much darker in plumage. Scientists have not been able to agree if they should be considered a full species or subspecies, so further research is needed.

(Image by Borja Mila)

Nothing is official yet though. The American Ornithlogists’ Union Checklist Committee has to approve the change first. Changes are usually released in July, so the earliest the split could occur would be July 2017. In the meantime, here are a few quick facts about Yellow-rumped Warblers.

  • Yellow-rumped Warblers breed farther north than any other North American Warbler.
  • Myrtles have a white throat while Audubon’s have a yellow throat.
  • During breeding season, Yellow-rumped Warblers mainly eat insects. In the colder months they switch to mainly fruit. The reason why they can winter farther north than other warblers is because of their unique ability to digest the waxes of wax myrtles and bayberries.
(Image by Borja Mila)

If you want to learn more about the Yellow-rumped Warbler’s species status, you can check out the following articles.

“Genomic variation across the Yellow-rumped Warblers species complex” by David Toew, published The Auk, October 2016

“Goodbye, Yellow-rump” by Hugh Powell, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“The Yellow-rumped Warbler Will Probably be Split Into Different Species Again” by Kenn Kaufman, editor at Audubon

Cory’s Shearwater: Seashore Saturday

The last few weeks have been about shorebirds, so today I wanted to write about a seabird.

Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea)


Cory’s Shearwaters are the largest of the North American Shearwaters at around 19″.  They have sandy brown upperparts and white underparts. Their heads are mainly dark and their wings are broad and arched. Cory’s have distinctive, heavy yellow bills.

Cory’s Shearwater (Image by Adin Vella via


Found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts between March and October. . Cory’s have an extremely large range. They are native to North America, Africa, Europe, and many island nations. Savage Islands, Madeira, has the largest breeding colony of Cory’s Shearwaters.


Open oceans. Cory’s prefer warm waters. They nest on mountainous or rocky islands.


Fish, crustaceans, and squid. Cory’s forage by plunge diving into the water and grabbing prey from below the surface. Like many other seabirds, Cory’s also scavenge for food near fishing boats and sometimes associate with whales who scare small schools of fish to the surface. Cory’s are usually solitary but will gather in flocks with other shearwaters where food is abundant.

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Cory’s Shearwater in flight (Image by Jeff Slovin via


Cory’s Shearwaters breed between March and October in large colonies that are mainly active later in the day. During courtship pairs will sit close together and preen each others’ heads and bills. They mainly nest in crevices, burrows, or on the ground using shells and small pebbles. Females lay one egg per year that is incubated by both parents for 52-56 days. They parents feed the young primarily at night and eventually the chick goes out to sea to feed on their own. When tending to the young, parents switch incubation roles around every 6 days.  The young fledge about 90 days after hatching.

A Cory’s Shearwater at its nesting site (Image by Coimbra68 via wikimedia commons)


Silent when out at sea.

Fun Facts:

  • This species of  shearwater was named after American ornithologist Charles B. Cory.
  • Cory’s Shearwaters are in the family Procellariiformes, more commonly known as tubenoses. Members of this family have have distinctive nostrils, that are covered by tubes on their upper bills. Since they drink salt water they have to excrete excess salt. The nasal glands are above the eyes at the base of the bill. This gland removes salt and creates as saline solution that drips out of the nostrils of their bills. Tubenose birds have a great sense of smell, which aids them in finding prey as well as their nest sites.