Sneak Attack

The vultures were circling high in the air. House Sparrows hopped about on the grass and flew in and out of bushes. European Starlings flew overheard, singing their melodious trills.

Oh, by the way, this was all taking place in a parking lot.

Yes, you read that correctly. This was my recent walk through the parking lot next to my mom’s apartment. She lives in a busy section of a busy town that is always swarming with people. Yet, this parking lot is always filled with birds. Throughout the year we see House Finches, a variety of Sparrows, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Black and Turkey Vultures, European Starlings, American Robins, and many others. The lot is large, so it’s split into multiple parts. Between two sections there is a small stream and trees/bushes, so that must be part of the reason we see so many birds here.

It seemed like a pretty typical walk to the apartment. I was enjoying the sound of the Starlings and preoccupied thinking about the lovely weather.

That’s when the screaming started. It was to my left on the ground. I turned my head to see a flash of brown and flying feathers. The screech was piercing.

It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk! It attacked one of the Starlings. I have no clue where the hawk came from. The Starling somehow ended up escaping, and the Sharpie flew off in a frenzy. The struggle only last for a few seconds, but it almost seemed like time stopped for a moment. It was fascinating to experience this sneak attack so close

sharpshinned10-14
Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk with prey (Image by Bill Schiess, via eastidahonews.com)

.A busy city parking lot is not where you would normal expect to see an Accipiter like the Sharp-shinned. Accipiters, sometimes referred to as “sparrowhawks”, live in deeply wooded habitats. The Accipiter family consists of 3 North American Hawks: Northern Goshawks, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. “Sharpies” are the smallest of the 3 hawks.

Sharpies are about 11 inches in length. They are usually confused with the very similar Cooper’s Hawks, which is about 16 inches in length. Sharp-shinned hawks have long tails that act like a rudder as their glide through the woods in pursuit of prey. Their legs are also long and wings are short. Adults have blue-gray backs and red-orange bars on their breasts. Juveniles are mostly brown with white bellies. I believe the Sharpie I witnessed was a juvenile.

juvenile_accipiter_striatus
Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk (Image by Kevin Cole via wikipedia)

Sharp-shinned Hawks are very agile, and adapted for navigating through trees and dense thickets. They can also be found at bird feeders. They aren’t there to eat the seed however: they are there to eat the birds. A majority of the Sharpie’s diet are songbirds. Any small bird between the size of a hummingbird to a ruffed grouse can be potential prey. Males (who are the smaller of the sexes) tend to capture smaller birds such as sparrows. Females (the larger sex) tend to catch large prey such as Flickers. Feeders are the perfect place to scope out a meal for a Sharpie. They will usually take their catch to a perch to pluck out the feathers.

The last thing I expected to see that day in the parking lot was a Sharpie. I’m guessing while passing by he spotted all the songbird activity that day, so he thought he could catch a quick snack. It was a really amazing moment to experience.

 

Gilded Flicker Wednesday

Hello friends! Today’s featured woodpecker is the Gilded Flicker.

Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides)

Description:

Gilded Flickers are medium-sized woodpeckers, who look similar to their cousin, the Northern Flicker. Gilded Flickers are smaller than Northern Flickers, and seem to take a characteristic of each Northern variations. Gilded Flickers have yellow wings like the “Yellow-shafted” Northern and gray heads/red malar (cheek) stripes like the “Red-shafted” Northern. Female Gilded lack the malar stripes. Unlike they Northern, they have cinnamon brown foreheads. Their upperparts are “zebra-backed” and brown. Their underparts are gray and spotted. Gilded Flickers have a black crescent-shaped spot on their chests. Their yellow wings and white rump are conspicuous in flight. Juveniles are smaller and paler than adults.

gilded-flicker-2
Adult Gilded Flicker (Image via CCNAB, birds-of-north-america.net)

Range:

Southwestern Arizona, northwestern Mexico, all of Baja California excluding the northwest corner. Very rare in southeastern California and southern Nevada

Habitat:

common in Sonoran habitats, desert uplands, riparian woodlands with willows and cottonwoods along streams and rivers

Food:

Mainly ants, insects, berries, nuts, seeds, fruit. Forages on the ground, along trees and cacti.

Breeding:

Males defend the territory by head/wing flicking, drumming, calling, and tail-spreading. Nest cavities are usually in saguaro cacti, but sometimes in cottonwood or willow trees. 4 to 5 eggs are incubated by both sexes for about 11 days. The young are fed mainly by regurgitation from the parents. Young fledge about 4 weeks after hatching, and will follow parents to foraging sites.

1b62b52e-9e6f-44bd-8cd7-b162fe5fad2a-largeimage
Gilded Flicker in Arizona (Image by NPS via new.science360.gov)

Sounds:

a series of kee! notes, wik-wik-wik calls, drumming

Conservation:

Gilded Flickers are considered climate-threatened. Other threats include habitat destruction, urbanization, and European Starlings competing for nest cavities. They are still fairly common in their habitat. More research is needed about this woodpecker to help maintain populations.

Fun Facts:

  • Gilded, “Yellow-shafted” and “Red-shafted” Flickers used to be considered one species, called the Common Flicker.
  • There is a small population of Gilded and “Red-shafted” Northern Flicker hybrids.

Autumn

Autumn has become a special time of year for me. Autumn brings inevitable but important change. For me, it’s a time for reflection; not only about the past, but about my future. Feeling the cool breeze and the seeing changing colors make me feel invigorated. Seeing the new species arrive and the old migrate south fills me with wonder. There’s nothing quite like spending time outdoors in the crisp air and experiencing the beauty of nature on a sunny autumn day.

I don’t really share much of my personal life here unless it has to do with birds (of course!), but it’s been a rough few months for me. Circumstances beyond my control have consumed my time since mid-September, which I would have rather spent outdoors enjoying the season. This past weekend renewed my sense of calmness, because I was able to spend most of it outdoors. I feel like I was able to experience autumn of the first time this year over the past few days. Autumn is slowly repairing my bruised soul from the past few months. As time goes on, I find the more time I spend in nature, the happier I become.

I don’t have any pictures or stories about birds for this post (but have a few posts currently in the works about that, so stay tuned!). On Saturday I had a wonderful time at Smithville Park with my Mom and sister to celebrate my Mom’s birthday. On Sunday I spend a lovely day with my friends Casey and Cathe at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. I wanted to share with you some of the autumn beauty that I experienced on those trips. I hope these pictures of the amazing season inspire you as well.

“Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.” -William Cullen Bryant

img_1117
Smithville Lake (Image by BirdNation)
img_1123
Path at Smithville Lake (Image by BirdNation)
img_1470
Lovely flowers at Longwood Gardens (Image by BirdNation)
img_1484
A dash of orange (Image by BirdNation at Longwood Gardens)
img_1487
The Farmhouse (Image by BirdNation at Longwood Gardens)

The following images were taken inside The Conservatory at Longwood Gardens. We were there during the Chrysanthemum Festival. These pictures were taken in many different rooms that housed hundreds of varieties of flowers. I do not know the names of these flowers, I just thought they were beautiful (if you know anything of them I would love to learn what they are).

 

Mystery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

It was April 1944. Don Eckelberry,who worked for Audubon, went to Singer Tract in Madison Parrish, Louisiana on a mission. His goal was to spot a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A few months prior, this bird was seen by Richard Pough, who later became the first president of the Nature Conservancy. Singer Tract was a large stretch of primeval southern forest that was owned by the Singer Sewing Company. The logging rights to this forest were sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The National Audubon Society tried to buy the land from Chicago Mill but were unsuccessful.

Unfortunately, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers need large sections of forest to thrive. And Singer Tract happened to be where a few of these woodpeckers were living at the time. Tragically, the forest at Singer Tract was eventually logged.

But in April 1944, Don Eckelberry did find his female Ivory-billed in Singer Tract. She was alone in an uncut area of the forest. Eckelberry wrote in a letter to John Baker, “It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest.” Eckelberry’s observation in April 1944 was the last universally accepted sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

014_jpg
A photograph of Singer Tract from 1937 (Image via fws.gov/ivorybill)

And so the mystery began. Does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exist, or is it extinct? It’s been a topic of much debate and study over the years. There have been sightings reported, but nothing is confirmed and the evidence is almost non-existent.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is considered the third largest woodpecker in the world, at 20 inches in length and a 30 inch wingspan.  It’s body is black with large white patches on its wings/neck, and a bright red crest. Historically, this species was found in the Southeastern United States from Texas east to North Carolina, north up to lower Ohio, and south to Cuba. The Cuban Ivory-billed is considered a subspecies and may also possibly be extinct. They lived in thick, uninterrupted hardwood forests and swamps that had a lot of dead and decaying trees.

ivory-bill_pair
A male and female switching parenting duties (Image taken by Arthur A. Allen in April 1935, via wikipedia)

What cause the decline of this species? There are multiple factors, including hunting for sport, science, and used in Native American culture/trading. However, habitat destruction throughout the early 1900’s broke up the Ivory-billed’s territory, which prevented them from being able to sustain their populations. In 1939 it was estimated that only around 24 individuals lived in the United States. The number of birds alive today, if any,  is unknown.

Much of what we know comes from research in the mid-1930s. In 1935, Arthur Allen (founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Peter Paul Kellogg (Cornell professor), James Tanner (Cornell graduate student), George Miksch Sutton (a bird artist/ornithologist), and Jack Kuhk (a local game warden), set up camp in the swamps of Singer Tract to study the Ivory-billed. They did find a nest in a maple tree and studied it for a few weeks. They were able to capture audio and video recordings on this expedition. The recordings made by Kellogg in 1935 are still used today in recent searches.

James Tanner went back to Singer Tract between 1937 and 1939 as part of his dissertation. He was able to study these birds in-depth. In this trip he was able to observe a young woodpecker being raised by its parents for 16 days. Tanner banded this young bird, the only one of its species to ever be banded. He published The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1942, which featured his research and two pictures of Jack Kuhk with the chick perched on his arm and head. These were the only 2 pictures of an Ivory-billed juvenile, until a few more were discovered by Tanner’s wife Nancy in 2009.  Tanner traveled a total of 45,000 miles around the southeast, but only ever found the woodpeckers at Singer Tract. He died in 1991, believing that the bird was extinct.

indelible-ivory-billed-woodpecker-520-jpg__600x0_q85_upscale
Jack Kuhk with the young Ivory-billed on his shoulder (Photograph taken by James Tanner in 1938, via smithsonianmag.com

There many still be hope though. Scientists are still looking, and there have been sightings in the past 20 years. The Cornell Lab searched for the woodpeckers in 2002 in Louisiana with no luck. In 2004 Gene Sparling, an Arkansas native, spotted one while kayaking in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. This sparked interested again, so Tim Gallagher (from the Cornell Lab) and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Alabama went down to “The Big Woods” in Arkansas to investigate. They sucessfully spotted one on that trip. Other employees and students of the Lab have made trips to Arkansas as well and may have seen the woodpeckers too. A search for the Cuban Ivory-billed took place in January 2016 by Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink, but they yielded no results.

So the question remains: does the Ivory-billed still exist? Studies are ongoing, and at the moment there is not enough data for scientists to agree on this predicament. Only time will tell if this elusive species will be resurrected from the dead once again. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a lesson in how human carelessness can cause destruction far beyond what we anticipate in our environment. From this experience we can learn just how important conservation is to all species. Hopefully this Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found again one day. In the meantime, it will remain a mystery.

campephilus_principalis
A male Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1935, taken by Arthur A. Allen

 

To learn more check out the following links:

The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba by Audubon

The Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A Close Encounter with the Rarest Bird by Stephen Lyn Bales for Smithsonian Magazine

Meet the Feet

A few weeks ago I was researching some interesting facts for my post World of Woodpeckers. One of the featured facts was that woodpeckers have two forward and two backwards-facing toes, making their feet zygodactyl. I already knew about the toe directions, but was unfamiliar with the term zygodactyl, so i googled it.

That’s when a whole new world opened up for me: the world of bird feet. It’s not a topic that normally comes up in conversation, but bird feet are pretty amazing. There are different kinds of feet throughout the avian world. They serve a variety of functions and tell a lot about a bird’s ecology.

Functions of avian feet include perching, locomotion, preening, feeding, carrying/holding objects, scratching, reproduction (egg rolling, displays), and heat loss regulation.

Birds are animals that are considered digitigrade. This means that they generally walk on their toes, not on their entire foot like we do. Most birds have have 4 toes, or digits, although some only have 3. Bird digits can be arranged in a few different ways.

Anisodactyl

Anisodactyl feet are the most common digit arrangement in the bird world. This means that digit number 1 (which is similar to our big toe) faces backwards and the other 3 digits face forwards. This digit arrangement is found in passerines, or perching birds. Anisodactyl feet are extremely flexible because all four digits are independent. Therefore, digit 1 can be flexed to lock the toes around a perch. That’s why you don’t see birds falling out of trees when they sleep on a branch!

anisodactyl-300x146
Anisodactyl foot (Image via kidwings.com)

Zygodactyl

On zygodactyl feet, digits 1 and 4 face backwards while digits 2 and 3 face forward. This kind of foot in common in woodpeckers, most parrots, owls, and some other species. The shape of these feet help a bird climb up, down, and along the trunk of a tree. Parrots use their feet to hold food and bring it to their bill, in the same way that we use our hands to eat. Owls have zygodactyl feet to help them hold their prey and perch. Something unique about owls is that they can rotate their 4th digit forward.

bird_f1
Zygodatcyl foot (via Ferbank Science Center, Atlanta, GA)

Webbed Feet

There are 4 kinds of webbed feet, with the most common being Palmate.

  • In palmate feet, digit 1 is backwards and digits 2,3, and 4 are connected by webbing. Examples include ducks, geese, gulls, terns, loons, and other aquatic birds.
  • Semipalmate feet are found in sandpipers, plovers, herons, grouse, and avocets to name a few. These feet are similar to palmate but the webbing is smaller.
  • Lobate feet have a backwards digit 1 and digits 2,3, and 4 have lobes of skin surrounding them. A few species with lobate feet include coots, grebes, and phalaropes.
  • Totipalmate feet have all four digits connected by webbing. Some totipalmate birds are pelicans, cormorants, anhingas, boobies, frigatebirds, and gannets.
bird_feet_-_webbing_and_lobation_en
Kinds of webbed feet (Image via wikimedia commons by Darekk2)

Raptorial

Raptorial feet are found in birds of prey (raptors). The toes of these feet are called talons. They are curved with sharp nails, strong, and large. These kind of feet make raptors lethal hunters.

cd2b0d5c4e695380c978d1e0da9ec4e9
Bald Eagle talons (Image via pinterest.com)

Other (more uncommon) Feet

  • Pamprodactyl feet have the 4 digits facing forward. However, the two outer digits (1 and 4) can be rotated backwards. This kind of foot is found in swifts.
  • Another toe arrangement that is similar to zygodatcyl is heterodactyl. There are still 2 forward and 2 backwards, but instead digits 1 and 2 are backward and 3 and 4 are forward. This arrangement is only found in trogons.
  • Syndactyl feet are found in Kingfishers. Digits 2 and 3 are fused together and digit 1 is very small and backwards.
  • Didactyl feet are only found on ostriches. Didactyl means “two-toed”. The shape of this foot is similar to a horse’s hoof, so having along two toes aids in running and escaping predators.
  • Tridactyl feet have only three digits, digit one is missing. Tridactyl birds include emus,.bustards, the Northern Three-toed Woodpecker, and quails.

The anatomy of birds is a broad and fascinating subject. There are over 10,000 birds species and so many variations/adaptations to learn about. I hope to present more bird anatomy posts in the future.

In the meantime, if you have any specific birds or topics you would like to know more about please let me know in the comment section.