Archive for Backyard Birds

Northern Flicker 4/23/18

Northern Flickers are already returning with this first wave of spring migrants. Notice the distinct black bib and spotted belly, and the gilded yellow shafts of the underfeathers give it its more common oldtime name—Yellowhammer. There’s also an unmistakeable white rump you can’t miss when you see its bouncy flight pattern. Males have black mustaches, females have none. Flickers often excavate new nest cavities every year, making other cavity nesters somewhat dependent on them to recycle their housing. Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are the only 2 New England woodpeckers that migrate, the others are all resident.

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Cooper’s Hawk, immature male 4/19/18

We have 3 Accipiter hawks in New England, relatively slender birds compared to the bulkier soaring hawks. Accipiters have short rounded wings and long rudder-like tails designed for maximum maneuverability for chasing littler birds through the woods. The 3 species are basically different sizes of the same design, with the Cooper’s Hawk being the mid-sized model. This one’s a juvenile, revealed by the yellow iris which turns red as the bird ages. Juve Coops also have a finely streaked breast, like raindrops, unlike the smaller Sharp-shinned which has a more barred breast or the larger Northern Goshawk which has a more heavily streaked breast. Another definitive clue to it being a Cooper’s Hawk are the outer tail feathers being shorter, resulting in a rounded tail. Tail feathers all the same length produce a more squared-off look.

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Common Grackle 4/17/18

Few blackbirds are as colorful close up as the Common Grackle. Even odder is that the colors they do sport aren’t pigment-based like most birds’ feathers, but iridescent which depends on the fine-tuned microstructure of the feathers to reflect light, and in that way that create those shiny and metallic blue-greens, purples, and bronzes. You’ll often see Common Grackles strutting around a lawn looking for some omnivorous snack, or gathered in groups high in the treetops and making an ungodly racket, or flying along with their tails folded into a v-shaped scoop.

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Eastern Bluebird male 4/13/18

Every day from my garden now I can hear the twerdling of this male Eastern Bluebird singing to his silvery sweetheart, who is setting up housekeeping in a nest box below him. She builds the nest while he stands guard, and with any luck they’ll raise at least two broods over the summer, maybe even three, with each brood taking about a month to incubate, hatch and fledge. Youngsters are raised entirely on insects and invertebrates. Bluebirds have been around the neighborhood all winter though in a small gregarious flock, but now they’ve paired off and taken up territories for the breeding season. 2018 marks the 5th year in a row we’ve had them nesting somewhere round the yard.

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Downy Woodpecker male 4/12/18

Telling a Downy Woodpecker apart from a Hairy Woodpecker is one of those conundrums that plague beginning birders. In just about every feature they look almost exactly the same, white underneath, and mostly black above with white spots and stripes. There are 3 reliable field marks that tell them apart. Size is the first and most obvious, the Downy is our smallest woodpecker at 6.5 inches, while the Hairy is half again that size at 9.5 inches. But size is often unreliable unless seen up close or with other birds. The second and best feature to tell them apart is their relative bill size. For a woodpecker, the Downy has a proportionately small bill, while the Hairy has a proportionately longer and more robust chisel-like bill. Unfortunately one can only get the feel of this difference with experience. The 3rd thing that tell them apart is that the outer tail feathers of a Downy are white with black spots or bars, while the Hairy’s outer tail feathers are all white. Unfortunately one doesn’t often see tail feathers that closely. The most peculiar thing about these two birds is that despite a nearly identical appearance, they aren’t closely related, not even in the same genus!

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Fox Sparrow 3/31/18

This is just one of a half dozen Fox Sparrows scratching up my backyard yesterday. They get their name on account of their foxy colors, so it should be no surprise that such a group of them is called a “den.” They’re one of my all time favorite sparrows, but then I say that about almost all of the sparrows. They have an energetic 2-footed kick-scratching to turn up bugs and seeds, and that they’re so big they’re often mistaken for a thrush. In New England they migrate through on their way to the Canadian boreal forests in spring, and back through to the southern states in the fall, but it’s not unheard of to see one or two of them in the winter months.

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Red-winged Blackbird male 3/12/18

Everyone has their surefire harbingers of spring, Red-wing Blackbirds singing konk-a-ree are mine.

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