Red-headed Woodpecker Wednesday

We only have 3 more weeks of our autumn feature, Woodpecker Wednesday. On December 21 (the Winter Solstice), Waterfowl Wednesday will return! Today’s featured woodpecker is the Red-headed Woodpecker.

Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

Descriptions:

The plumage of the Red-headed Woodpecker is bold and striking. Their bellies are white, and their wings are half-black, half-white. Their round heads are bright red. There are only four sexually monochromatic woodpeckers in the world and the Red-headed Woodpecker is one of them. This means it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between a male and female visually in the field.  Immature Red-heads actually lack the red head. Their heads are gray-brown, and the white patch on their wings have rows of black spots.

red-headed-woodpecker-10
Red-headed Woodpecker (Image by Classic Collection of North American Birds via birds-ofn-north-america.net)

Range:

Year-round from Rocky Mountain States east to the Atlantic Coast and south to Texas and Florida. Summer (breeding): from Eastern Montana to New York. Some populations winter in mid-Texas.

Habitat:

Deciduous woodlands, open forests, groves, orchards, farm country

Diet:

Considered the most omnivorous North American woodpecker. Eats nuts, insects, seeds, fruit. Sometimes they raid nests and eat eggs/nestlings. May occasionally eat mice and other adult birds. Like the Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-heads are proficient at flycatching.

Like some other woodpeckers, Red-heads store nuts and seeds in crevices of trees. However, they are the only North American woodpecker that is known to use bark and wood as a protective covering to hide their caches.

jjwilliams_1434145063_red-head-fly-acorn-9772-copy
Foraging for acorns (Image by Jim Williams via Minnesota Star Tribune)

Breeding/Nesting:

They are monogamous, usually for several years. Males will do most of the excavating on a dead tree, and if the female approves the site she will tap with him. Red-heads may have 1-2 broods per year, with usually 4-5 eggs per clutch. Both parents will incubate the eggs for 12-13 days and the young will fledge about 27-31 days after hatching. The pair may start a second brood in the same nest, but usually a separate nest while still feeding the first brood.

Sounds:

rheer, rheer squeal; racka racka chatter used for communcation between mates, a short descending rattle as a defense call. Groups call while flycatching.

Conservation:

Populations have fluctuated dramatically over the past 200 years, and have declined in the Northeast in recent years. Population loss is likely through to lack of old-growth forests and acorn crop fluctuations. The are considered Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Fun Facts:

  • Red-heads are very pugnacious, and will be aggressive towards a variety of other birds, even the large Pileated Woodpecker 
  • Their closets relatives are the Acorn and Lewis’s Woodpecker. They are all members of the genus Melanerpes. 
  • They will store live grasshopper into tree crevices that are so tight the grasshopper can’t escape.
  • Sometimes Red-heads may drop nuts or pine cones on roads to be crushed by cars. Unfortunately, this leads to a relatively high rate of roadkill mortality.
  • Due to the striking contrast of their plumage, they are sometimes known as “the flying checkerboard”.
Advertisements

The Warbler Guide

Dave and I were getting ready to go on a birding trip. We were going to Hawk Mountain, so I wanted to bring our small Canon camera instead of the DSLR since it’s easier to carry around. Dave usually keeps the Canon in his sock drawer, in the left corner right on top. I opened up the drawer, but the camera wasn’t there. I started pushing socks around.

And then there it was. Nope, not the camera. The Warbler Guide. The book that Dave and I were looking at in Barnes and Nobles a few weeks earlier.

My first thought was Oops. I found my Christmas gift.”  I felt slightly panicked. Then my second thought was one of excitement: “He bought me The Warbler Guide!” . I realized I had to try and act cool to pretend that I didn’t find the book. So I quickly closed the drawer said “Hey Dave, I can’t find the camera, can you help me find it?” I started petting our cat Jenny who happened to be sitting nearby to try to take my mind off of what I found. It was hard to contain my excitement. I guess I did a pretty bad job of it because a few minutes later Dave asked, “Did you see something in my drawer?”

I admitted that yes, I did find the book. He told me that I could have it early since he planned on getting another thing for Christmas too. Dave and I can never actually wait until the holiday to give each other gifts anyway (we get too excited and can’t keep the secret) so we always give gifts early. I’ll consider it a Thanksgiving gift lol :-).

The Warbler Guide is amazing. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, it won a National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks in 2014. If you are serious about learning to identify North American warblers, then this is the book for you. This guide is extremely detailed. I am already in love with it.

warbler-guide

The first section of the book is called “What to Notice on a Warbler”. This section focuses color and contrast, behavior, the face, the body, and the undertail . There are many pictures to help explain the key identification points. One of my favorite parts of this section is “the face”, where the authors goes deeper into significant facial features such as eye rings, cheek patches, superciliums (a.k.a the “eyebrow”), and more.

Another section is titled “How to Listen to Warbler Songs”. This section explores the elements that create warbler songs. The authors use audio spectrograms (a.k.a sonograms) to show harmonics, song stucture, and phrases. This chapter explains in detail how to read the spectrograms, but later in the book you can explore the spectrograms of each individual species in this book.

The largest section of this guide is the individual species accounts. Instead of putting the warblers in taxonomic order like other field guides, the authors decided to put the birds in alphabetical order. They explained in the beginning of the book they did this because the taxonomy of warblers has significantly changed recently, and some of the warblers in question are still not settled. The authors also felt it would be easier to find the warbler you need if the birds were listed alphabetically.

species-account
Example of a Species Account (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)

Each species accounts are about 3-6 pages long with numerous pictures. Information provided includes physical descriptions, range maps, photos of distinct views/many additional photos, comparison species (with photos), aging and sexing, and spectograms (with comparison to other species). There are a few features in each account that you usually don’t see in other field guides such as undertail patterns, preferred habit in trees (high canopy, understory, ground, etc), a color diagram, and behavior icons. All this information is easy to read and well organized.

Other great features of this book include quizzes to test you id skills, habitat and behavior charts, a taxonomy chart, descriptions and diagrams of flight patterns, silhouettes broken down by region, and species accounts of similar non-warbler species.

My favorite feature is the “quick finder section”. The quick finder section are all illustrations. The “quick finders” include faces, side views, 45 degree views, under views, seasonal plumage views, types of undertails, and song finder charts.

The Warbler Guide has a wealth of information for serious birders. It’s well organized and has hundreds of great pictures to show key identification parts. There’s a website listed in the back of the book where you can access additional resources. You can also purchase for iTunes the audio tracks that are featured in the book, so you can study the spectograms while listening. I think it’s an essential book for anyone who wants to explore the wonderful world of North American Warblers. I can’t wait to devour the information in this book.

And who knows, this may be the perfect gift for the warbler lover in you life. Just make sure you hide it better than Dave did :-P.

 

American Three-toed Woodpecker Wednesday

Today’s featured woodpecker is the American Three-toed Woodpecker.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis)

Description:

American Three-toed Woodpeckers are black and white, “pied” face, and about 8 inches in length. Their plumage is more black than white. These woodpeckers are one of the two North American woodpeckers that are tridactyl, meaning they have three toes instead of four like other species (you can learn more about the different kind of bird feet here). The male’s crown is yellow and the female’s crown is all black. Adult Three-toed have a thin white eye stripe that curves downwards behind their ear. They appear to have a short bill due to elongated nasal tufts.

americanthreetoedwoodpkb4
Male American Three-toed Woodpecker (Image by Kendall Brown via utahbirds.org)

Range:

found year-round in boreal forests from western Alaska through Canada east to Newfoundland; Rocky and Cascade Mountains in the western United States

Habitat:

Coniferous forests; especially in burned, flooded or insect-infested forests. Associated with lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and spruce trees.

Diet:

Three-toed tend to live in areas where there are spruce bark beetles infestations, which are a large part of their diet. Other food sources include a variety of beetles, ants, arthropods, may occasionally consume sap or fruit. Forages on tree trunks will remove bark from trees to find insects.

Breeding/Nesting:

Not much is known about breeding habits. Three-toed excavate nest cavities in usually dead coniferous trees. Both sexes will work together to excavate a new cavity each year. They are monogamous during breeding season, and may possibly stay together for more than one season. Three-toed usually lay 4 eggs which are incubated for 12-14 days by both sexes. The young will fledge 22-26 days after hatching and will remain with their parents for 4-8 weeks afterwards.

american-three-toed-woodpecker
Female American Three-toed Woodpecker (Image by Discovery Planet at discoveryplanet.com.au)

Sounds:

pik!, similar to a Downy Woodpecker  , one of the least vocal North American woodpeckers. Also makes rattle and twitter sounds, and can be easily identified by its drum.

Conservation:

Local populations vary; may be more abundant after fires and insect-infestations. They are generally uncommon and may be more sensitive to timber harvesting. They are considered a conservation priority throughout their range.

Fun Facts: 

  • Three-toed breed the furthest north of any North American woodpecker species.
  • They are one of the most difficult woodpeckers to spot in the field and are highly sought by birders to add to their life lists. They are usually overlooked because their black plumage helps them blend in well with the charred trees they sit on. They may sit still on a trunk for long periods of time, making them easy to miss. The best time to spot them is during peak breeding season, when they are the most vocal.
  • In 2003, the “Three-toed Woodpecker” was split into two separate species: the American Three-toed Woodpecker and the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. Even though they look similar, the difference occurs in their mitochondrial DNA.

 

 

Hidden in Plain Sight

Dave and I took a trip to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR on Saturday.

It wasn’t our normal trip however.The wildlife drive is under construction. A few years ago Hurricane Sandy hit the shore hard, so the refuge is finally being revitalized the way it should be. The wildlife drive was only accessible up to Turtle Cove Tower and up Gull Pond Road (which is a very small part of the 8 mile drive). We were hoping that there would see be a lot of birds to see despite being limited.

As usual, the refuge was filled with thousands of birds. Now that the weather cooler, the waterfowl have returned! There were large flocks of  Canada Geese, Brant, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Northern Pintails. Large flocks of Dunlins and various gulls were present as well. Some other birds we saw included Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, Northern Harriers, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, and Mute Swans. There were even a few Horseshoe Crab shells on the beach.

We decided to drive up Gull Pond Rd, a first for us. When we arrived there was a small crowd (about 8 people) gathered by the reeds snapping pictures excitedly. I heard someone talking about Ruddy Ducks and Hooded Mergansers as we approached. So I started to wonder, “Is everyone taking pictures of a duck?”

We stopped by to investigate, but…it seemed like nothing was there. I searched the water. There must have been something, or people wouldn’t have been so excited. I was at a loss. So after a minute I turned to a lady who was standing behind us on top of her truck and asked:

“Excuse me… what are we looking at?”

She replied, “An American Bittern. It’s right in front of us in the reeds. See it now?”

And I did! There it was! Hiding in plain sight.

American Bitterns are part of the heron family. They are brown with strong stripes on their underparts. They look similar juvenile Night Herons. American Bitterns live in meadows and marshes with grassy or reedy vegetation. They are very inconspicuous. Spotting one is extremely difficult because their bold stripes help them blend into the reeds perfectly.

img_1616
American Bittern (Image by David Horowitz)

This bird was standing at the edge of the reeds. It was beautiful. We watched it for a few minutes as it watched us back. We took a few pictures then moved on. The American Bittern was a new addition to our life list.

You know the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens”? In our case when one road closed, another opportunity opened. Having most of the drive closed forced us to explore a different area, so we were able to find something new. That’s my favorite thing about birding, never knowing what amazing bird you’ll find. Maybe you’ll even find a bird hiding in plain sight.

 

 

 

Lewis’s Woodpecker Wednesday

Time for another Woodpecker Wednesday! Today’s featured bird is the fascinating Lewis’s Woodpecker. The species was spotted by Meriwether Lewis while camping on the Kooskooske River in Idaho in 1806 on his famed expedition with William Clark. Lewis named this species the “Black Woodpecker”, but ornithologist Alexander Wilson later renamed this woodpecker in honor of Lewis. The Lewis’s Woodpecker is unique from other woodpecker species in many ways.

Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis)

Description:

The Lewis’s Woodpecker is North America’s only green-colored woodpecker. Males and females are sexually monochormatic . This means that the sexes are identical, but slightly differ in size. This makes figuring out a Lewis’s sex in the field extremely difficult, unless you know the male’s vocalizations. Their backs, wings, heads, and tails are a solid greenish-black, with no white patches like other woodpecker species. Their bellies are a salmon pink or red. The Lewis’s breast and collar are a silver gray, and their faces are dark red. In flight they look black and look like a small corvid (like a jay or crow). Juveniles are darker and lack the gray collar/breast and red face.

lewis-s-woodpecker-6
Lewis’s Woodpecker (Image by Classic Collection of North American Birds at bird-of-north-america.net)

Range:

Scattered throughout mountainous regions of the America West. Winters in the Southwest and breeds (summers) in the Northwestern United States and parts of Western Canada.

Habitat:

Open habitats; scattered forests with large trees and numerous perches, river groves, foothills, burned forests; oak, cottonwood and ponderosa pines

Diet:

Unlike other woodpeckers, Lewis’s are aerial foragers. Although they sometimes glean insects off of tree barks, they mainly catch insects using acrobatic aerial displays like a flycatcher. This is why it’s important for their habitat to have a lot of high perches for foraging. In autumn they harvest acorns and other nuts, break them apart to store in crevices, and defends their makeshift granaries.

Breeding/Nesting:

Courtship displays by the male include bill pointing (away from the potential mate), circular flights, and wing spreading. Males will establish the territory first and the female will select the nesting cavity. Nesting cavities are used multiple years in a row, in either a natural cavity or one made by another woodpecker species. Breed pairs stay monogamous for around 4 years.

Both sexes incubate between 6-7 eggs for about 12-16. They share parenting duties once the young hatch and will both defend the nest cavity. Young fledge about 4-5 weeks after hatching and will stay with the parents awhile after.

lewis_wdpecker
Lewis’s Woodpecker (Image by Mac Knight via Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)

Sounds:

During breeding, males use 3 kinds of calls: chatter (similar to a dolphin call), call notes, and screech (skeer! or keea!). They drum much less than other woodpeckers.

Conservation:

Lewis’s populations have decreased over the past few decades, making them more erratic and hard to monitor. Population declines are due to habitat destruction and fire suppression of pine forests. They are on the 2016 State of  North America’s Birds’ Watch List and being watched closely by environmental groups. In Oregon, Lewis’s have been successful breeding in artificial nest boxes to help increase populations.

Fun Facts:

  • A Lewis’s Woodpecker specimen that is found in the Harvard Museum of Natural History is the only in-tact biological specimen from Lewis and Clark’s 1804-1806 expedition.
  • Lewis’s Woodpeckers can catch multiple insects on a single flight.
  • Most woodpeckers have a flight pattern of 3 flaps and a glide. Lewis’s flight pattern is more direct. When feeding they will glide down from a high perch. To return to a perch, the Lewis’s will flap continuously.

The Miracle of Migration

Fall migration has been underway for awhile now, starting as early as August for some birds. Of the 10,000 or so species of birds in the world, around 4,000 (40%) migrate. Birds migrate mainly due to the increase/decrease of resources and nesting sites. Factors that influence when a bird migrates includes genetics, day length, weather, and food supplies. Species that migrate may use annual migration routes, Earth’s magnetic field, the sun, and/or stars to help navigate their way.

birds
Migrating Cranes (Image via the Climate Institute, climate.org)

There are 3 kinds of migrants: short-distance, medium-distance, and long-distance. Birds considered permanent residents do not migrate since they can find resources all year round. In North America, there are around 350 species of long-distance migrants who travel between North America and Central/South America.

Migration is a very dangerous time in a bird’s life. There are many hazards, and an individual bird may not make it through the migration. The migration of birds has been evolving over thousands of years and occurs all over the world.

Here are some of the world’s most spectacular long-distance migrants.

  • Earlier this year, a 7-year-old female Arctic Tern broke the record for longest migration ever recorded: 59, 650 miles over her yearly migration from the coast of England to Antarctica and back. This is equivalent of flying around the Earth twice, with an extra 10,000 miles added to the trip. This trip was recorded by using geolocaters to track the bird’s position along their trip. Arctic Terns migrate through every ocean near almost every continent, and use global wind patterns. As geolocater technology improves, scientists estimate the this record will be broken.
arctic_tern_8664
Arctic Tern (Image by OddurBen via wikimedia commons)
  • The record for the longest migration in a single flight is held by a Bar-tailed Godwit. This bird flew 9 days straight for 7, 145 miles from Alaska to New Zealand.
  • Bar-headed Geese are the highest-flying migrants, who have been found flying 5 1/2 miles above sea level.
  • The longest migration record used to be held by the Sooty Shearwater. They migrate around 40,000 miles round-trip from New Zealand to the Northern Pacific Ocean.
img_2533_sooty_shearwater
Sooty Shearwater (Image by Greg Gillson via thebirdguide.com)

Other Fascinating Migration Facts:

  • Before migrating, birds enter a state called hyperphagia.  During hyperphagia, a bird’s hormones cause it to drastically increase its body weight in order to used stored fat as energy. Some birds may more than double their body weight before heading out to their new destinations.
  • Many species of swifts, waterfowl, and hawks will mainly migrate during the day. Songbirds tend to migrate at night since the cool air help them fly more efficiently.
  • While migrating, birds usually fly at speeds between 15-50 miles per hour. However, the Greater Snipe can fly at 60 miles per hour for up to 4,200 miles, making it the fastest flyer at long distances.

To learn more about bird migration, check out the following links:

Bird Migration Basics: The Basics of Bird Migration: How, Why, and Where by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org)

9 Awesome Facts About Bird Migration by Jhaneel Lockhart via the National Audubon Society (audubon.org)

If you want to learn more about the record-breaking Arctic Tern:

How a Tern Broke the Record for the Longest Known Migration by Sabrina Imbler for the National Audubon Society (article from June 2016)

Have you had any new migrants recently arrive in your area? Tell me about it in the comments below.