Archive for Woodpecker

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.


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!


Pileated Woodpecker male 1/28/18

You need to be around a sizable patch of woodland to regularly see these largest of the New England woodpeckers. The flaming red crests found in both sexes and even juveniles are what give them their name—pileated means crested or capped. On tree trunks they appear mostly black except for some white in the face and throat, though in flight you’ll see more of their white wing patches and underwings, which helps differentiate them from similarly sized crows. Mated pairs stick to their territories year round. They hammer away at tree trunks leaving rectangular holes in their search for ants and other insects but in winter they’ll also take fruits and berries, and if food is scarce or the winter particularly difficult, they’ll come to backyard feeding stations for suet. They have a stripe from the opening of the bill back to the throat which is black in the females, but red in the males.


Pileated Woodpecker male 2/10/17

The biggest woodpecker in New England is the Pileated, an impressive bird with a bright red crest and, in the males, a similarly bright red mustache. They have an undulating or bouncing flight like other woodpeckers which helps separate them from the similar-sized American Crow. They relish carpenter ants and chisel rectangular holes in rotting tree trunks to find them. They are territorial year round birds needing tall mature hardwoods with standing dead trees and windfalls. Their call is a loud laugh which can transport you back to some Jurassic jungle. In harsh winters they’ve been known to occasionally visit suet-feeders.


Downy Woodpecker male 1/21/17

Most of our New England woodpeckers are year-round residents with the exception of flickers and sapsuckers that migrate farther south in winter. The Downy is the smallest of them and in winter often forages with the neighborhood gang of chickadees, titmice, and other small birds. Their plumage is virtually identical to their larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, but if you’re in a situation where it isn’t easy to judge size, note that the Downy’s bill is rather small in proportion to its head, less than half its width. In contrast a Hairy’s bill is much bigger proportionately, and is more than half as wide as the head. For both species, males have the red patch at the back of the head, in females the same spot is white, and juveniles have a red patch on top.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker juve male 9/26/16


One of New England’s two migratory woodpeckers (Northern Flicker being the other), Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill neat holes in tree trunks to lick the sap from. The sapwells are arranged in neat rows and are regularly tended to keep the sap flowing. Trees with a high sugar content like birches and maples are favored but many species of trees are utilized such as this American Larch. Juveniles are duller brown and drabber than the black and white adults. This juve is showing a few red feathers below the bill indicating its sex is male, females only sport red above the bill. In adults the red patches aren’t just hints but bright and well defined.


Northern Flicker pair 5/8/16


Northern Flickers are one of our most peculiar woodpeckers. For one thing they are migratory in New England, showing up in early spring unlike our resident Hairies and Downies, and Red-bellies and Pileateds who are year round birds no matter how far north they range. For another oddity you’re more likely to see them foraging for insects on the ground rather than in trees. This pic shows a mustachioed male and a bare-cheeked female. Both sexes sport black shields on their breasts and red patches on the nape, and when seen in flight, the golden-yellow shafts of their wing and tail feathers become prominent along with a flashy white rump. Like other woodpeckers they excavate cavities in tree trunks to nest in, and along with several loud calls, they also drum to communicate. Old-timers like me call them Yellowhammers. West of the great plains Northern Flickers are red-shafted rather than yellow.


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