Tag Archives: Woodpeckers

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Flicker, towhee among recent winter bird arrivals

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern towhee feeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

I’d almost given up on any new birds arriving to break the daily monotony of birds in my yard when two birds put in their first appearances of the year. An Eastern towhee and a Northern flicker both showed up simultaneously for the first time in 2017 on Jan. 13.

The towhee, a male, was feeding in the usual manner of its kind, scratching vigorously on the ground beneath my feeders. Towhees are quite ingenious at uncovering any seeds dropped by other birds.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A Northern flicker perches on a staghorn sumac.

The flicker was calling from the upper branches of a very tall tree at the edge of a wood lot near my home. The ringing calls of the flicker carried quite clearly even from a distance. Most woodpeckers, including the Northern flicker, are enthusiastic performers. We often think of woodpeckers in association with loud, repetitive drumming with their beaks against the trunk of a tree. Flickers are also known for using other surfaces for drumming. I’ve observed flickers drumming agains metal utility poles and metal siding on homes. That’s really not so strange when you consider that the purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates or to signal potential rivals that they’re getting a little too close.

Woodpeckers are also known for a variety of vocalizations, and the Northern flicker is no exception. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated flicker, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call can be heard from a considerable distance. It was this “kleer” call that first drew my attention to the presence of the flicker at my home on Jan. 13.

Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months. They go quiet for a period during the summer nesting season but start to make themselves heard again during the fall months. A warm, sunny day during the winter is often motivational enough to convince flickers to vocalize.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker peers from a nesting cavity.

A lot of wildlife is probably getting mixed signals thanks to the extremely mild January temperatures. For instance, I’ve already had a few crocuses blooming in my gardens. Bees and other pollinators have also awoken from winter slumber to take advantage of the unseasonal blooms. If frigid weather does eventually arrive, I hope that these “early birds” suffer no ill effects.

The Northern flicker is the second-largest woodpecker in the region. The only bigger member of the family is the large and unmistakable pileated woodpecker. The flicker ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker is also present in Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

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The Nothern flicker is the official state bird of Alabama, where the bird is known as “Yellowhammer.”

In the United States and Canada, flickers in the eastern half of the continent are known as “yellow-shafted” flickers. The phrase “yellow-shafted” describes the Eastern race of this woodpecker, which is replaced in the western United States by the “red-shafted” flicker. In reality, both the yellow and red-shafted birds are considered by experts to be the same species. The yellow feathers in Eastern birds are found under the wings and on the tail. The yellow, or red, sections of the wings are most visible when the bird is in flight. I’ve seen both forms of this woodpecker, observing the red-shafted form during trips to Utah in 2003 and 2006.

Although most people think of woodpeckers as spending most of their time clinging to the trunks of trees, the flicker actually has something in common with the Eastern towhee. Like the towhee, the flicker spends a lot of time on the ground hunting for its favorite food — ants. The flicker even has a special adaptation — a barbed tongue — that it uses to capture ants.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker, captured for a banding operation, has its wing extended to show the yellow feathers indicative of the eastern race of this species.

Flickers will come to feeders, but I’ve never had much luck attracting them. Perhaps I’ve not offered the right fare. The late John V. Dennis recommends “meat scraps, cracked walnuts and pecans, halved oranges and apples, and white bread” in his book, “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding.” Even Dennis acknowledged that flickers are, at best, wary visitors to feeders. Not much has changed since Dennis wrote his book back in 1977. If any readers have had success luring flickers to their feeders, I’d love to hear their advice for attracting them.

The flicker has even been recognized as an official state bird by Alabama. Of course, Alabama officially bestowed the recognition on the “yellowhammer,” a nod to a nickname for both the flicker as well as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Even today, Alabama is still known as the Yellowhammer State. Somewhat surprisingly, the flicker is the only woodpecker that has received designation as a state bird.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 125 species

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                  Red-tailed Hawks were found in good numbers on the recent fall count, but the species was outnumbered by migrating Broad-winged Hawks.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its annual Fall Bird Count back in September. The chapter’s five-county Fall Bird Count, the 47th consecutive survey conducted by the chapter, was held Sept. 24. A total of 39 observers (and two yard watchers) found a total of 125 species. Oppressive heat on the day of the count probably negatively affected bird numbers.
The Fall Bird Count, as well as the chapter’s annual Spring Bird Count, surveys bird populations in the upper Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.
The annual count is compiled by long-time chapter statistician Rick Knight.
The recent count was most notable for low numbers of many species. “A curious statistic: we had more Cedar Waxwings than European Starlings,” Knight remarked.
The all-time high on for a Fall Bird Count was 137 species in 1993.
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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     Blue-winged Teal were among the migratory waterfowl found during the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The total for this year’s Fall Bird Count follows:
Canada Goose, 1,118; Wood Duck, 40; Mallard, 224; Blue-winged Teal, 4; Green-winged Teal, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 23; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; Double-crested Cormorant, 16; Great Blue Heron, 30; Great Egret, 10; Green Heron, 2; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 159; Turkey Vulture, 222; Osprey, 7; Bald Eagle, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Red-shouldered Hawk, 5; Broad-winged Hawk, 25; and Red-tailed Hawk, 22.
Killdeer, 66; Spotted Sandpiper, 3; Least Sandpiper, 4; Pectoral Sandpiper, 6; American Woodcock, 4.
Rock Pigeon, 365; Eurasian Collared Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 174; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 8; Barred Owl, 8, and Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens Downy Woodpecker was the most numerous woodpecker tallied on the fall count.

Common Nighthawk, 3; Chimney Swift, 379; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 30; Belted Kingfisher, 33; Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 61; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 42; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker, 28; and Pileated Woodpecker, 32.
American Kestrel, 14; Peregrine Falcon, 2; Eastern Wood-pewee, 12; Acadian Flycatcher, 1; Empid species, 3; Eastern Phoebe, 68; and Eastern Kingbird, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo, 15; Blue Jay; 329; American Crow, 376; and Common Raven; 26.
Purple Martin, 1; Tree Swallow, 163; Barn Swallow, 1; Carolina Chickadee, 152; Tufted Titmouse, 124; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 12; and White-breasted Nuthatch, 36.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A total of 54 Northern Mockingbirds, Tennessee’s official state bird, was found on the count.

Brown Creeper, 5; House Wren, 3; Carolina Wren, 139; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 23; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.
Eastern Bluebird, 91; Veery, 4; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 6; Swainson’s Thrush, 89; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 16; American Robin, 343, Gray Catbird, 48; Brown Thrasher, 14; and Northern Mockingbird, 54.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Red Crossbills were among the finches tallied on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

European Starling, 426; Cedar Waxwing, 506; Ovenbird, 4; Worm-eating Warbler, 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 4; Tennessee Warbler, 12; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 10; Hooded Warbler, 4; American Redstart, 13; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 11; Bay-breasted Warbler, 6; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 3; Palm Warbler, 16; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2; Yellow-throated Warbler, 2; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 65; Chipping Sparrow, 24; Field Sparrow, 11; Song Sparrow, 83; Dark-eyed Junco, 95; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 15; Northern Cardinal, 138, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 43; and Indigo Bunting, 13.
Red-winged Blackbird, 61; Eastern Meadowlark, 10; Common Grackle, 156; House Finch, 51; Red Crossbill, 2; Pine Siskin, 10; American Goldfinch, 231; and House Sparrow, 38.

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The season’s first White-throated Sparrow showed up at my home on Oct. 30. I’m hopeful that the sparrow is but the first of many new arrivals ahead of the winter season. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Winter birds bring their own winning ways to region as weather turns colder

Erwin resident Don Dutton called me recently to ask about hummingbirds. He hasn’t seen many this past summer season, but as I told him, their numbers fluctuate from year to year. Most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds have now departed the region. I did encourage him to keep his sugar water feeders hanging as fall gets closer to the colder weather of winter. You never know when a rufous hummingbird or other western species might stray into Northeast Tennessee.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                           A young male Rufous Hummingbird at my feeder in Hampton, Tennessee, on Oct. 13.

In fact, I’ve been visited twice since the first of October by a young male rufous hummingbird. It’s easy to tell the rufous from the ruby-throated hummingbird. The rufous shows a great deal of brown/rufous coloration in its plumage. The bird at my feeders visited on Oct. 7 and again on Oct. 13. I’m very hopeful the bird will linger for a spell. I am asking anyone who sees a hummingbird in the coming weeks to let me know by sending an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/George Gentry An evening grosbeak, the largest of the winter finches that stage occasional irruptions southward in search of food, visits a feeder. Could this be the year these colorful birds return to the Southern Appalachians?

With October already halfway completed, it’s time to stop lamenting the end of summer and brace for another winter. The cold season brings an entirely new range of birds to the region for our viewing enjoyment. If nothing else, winter birds provide a tremendous morale boost to help us overcome the occasional gloom of the winter season. There’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching a large, boisterous flock of birds like evening grosbeaks or pine siskins at your feeders.

So, some of our favorite summer birds have flown south. We’ll miss them, but we will see them again next spring. In the meantime, winter offers its own bird diversity.

Here are some of the types of birds to enjoy as the weather outdoors becomes colder.
Ducks and other waterfowl. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts yearly surveys of the breeding success of native ducks. In cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, this year’s survey has some mixed news for those birders eager to observe ducks later this fall and in the winter at area lakes, rivers and ponds. Im love to check the pond at Erwin Fishery Park and the ponds along the linear trail for visiting waterfowl once the weather turns colder. The figures from the report came from surveys conducted in May and early June.
Overall duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady. Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A trio of Canvasbacks on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.
American wigeon, green-winged teal and redhead are two ducks that are expected to show an increase in numbers.
Unfortunately, some other species showed declines, including Northern shoveler and canvasback.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                             Northern finches, such as this Pine Siskin, may come south in large numbers.

Other waterfowl that could join the annual migration of ducks include everything from loons and grebes to geese and cormorants.
Northern finches. Reports from the Northeastern United States indicate that the cone crop — a vital food source for a variety of songbirds —has been extremely poor. Reports from Canada indicate more of the same, which could result in a variety of the so-called Northern finches — pine siskin, common redpoll, purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill and evening grosbeak — heading south in massive numbers as they seek out alternative food sources.
I’d be thrilled to see flocks of common redpolls or evening grosbeaks at my feeders, although the more likely visitors are probably pine siskins and purple finches. I haven’t hosted evening grosbeaks at my feeders since the late 1990s. In fact, I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2000. Perhaps this will be the year these large, colorful and energetic finches overwhelm our feeders once again.
The coming winter could be a very interesting one for birders. Keep your eyes open and your binoculars handy.
Sparrows. Although we have a few sparrows in our yards and gardens during the spring and summer, this group of birds often referred to as LBBs, or Little Brown Birds, really comes into its own during the winter season.
Some of the sparrows that may come to feeders during the colder months of the year include white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, swamp sparrow, field sparrow, and fox sparrow. Technically, even the Eastern towhee and dark-eyed junco are members of the sparrow family, although they lack names containing the word “sparrow.”
Many of the sparrows prefer yards offering dense cover, such as hedges, brush piles or evergreen trees.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens         Red-breasted Nuthatches are already showing up at feeders throughout the Southern Appalachians.

If you enjoy a challenge, set yourself the task of learning the subtle differences between some of our native sparrows.
Nuthatches and woodpeckers. Although the woodpeckers are present throughout the year, it’s often easier to observe these “tree-huggers” once the leaves are off the trees.
A couple of species, including the red-breasted nuthatch, red-headed woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker, are migratory birds with numbers that fluctuate from year to year.
I’m learning about reports that elevated numbers of red-breasted nuthatches are already winging their way south. These tiny birds with their “yank, yank” calls are immensely entertaining at feeders. They love sunflower seeds and peanuts, so make sure you have plenty of their favorites ready and waiting for them.

Woodpecker’s ‘red belly’ often obscured from view, but ‘redhead’ name often goes to wrong bird

 

In recent posts I have discussed the smallest and largest of the woodpeckers in the region, as well as focused a spotlight on the oddball yellow-bellied sapsucker and the medium-sized Northern flicker. This week’s post will focus on one of the most common, although ridiculously misnamed, woodpeckers, as well as one of its rather uncommon relatives.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                                            Just as acrobatic as its relatives, the red-bellied woodpecker ranks as a popular visitor to feeders. This photograph shows off the splash of red on the belly that gives this particular woodpecker its name.

Among the woodpecker family, the red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers are close cousins, belonging to a genus of those tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  When climbing the trunks of trees, red-bellied woodpeckers don’t often reveal the faint reddish wash on the feathers covering their stomachs. This photo, however, is an exception and shows the trait that gives this medium-sized woodpecker its common name.

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the most widespread members of this genus with a range that extends from southern Canada to northeastern Mexico, as well as the eastern United States as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. A century ago the red-bellied woodpecker was almost exclusively a southeastern bird, but it has expanded its range northward and westward considerably in the last 100 years. Its southern origins are hinted at in its scientific name of Melanerpes carolinus, which can be roughly translated as “black creeper of the Carolinas.”

It’s also named for a characteristic of its appearance that is not particularly prominent and not easy to observe. The faint tint of red that tinges the white belly feathers is extremely difficult to observe when this woodpecker is hitching up the trunk of a large tree. Because males, and females to a certain extent, have a red cap, the species has been erroneously referred to as a “red-headed woodpecker” by many casual observers. The true red-headed woodpecker, however, has an entirely red head and a plumage pattern that, considering its color trio of red, white and blue-black, is downright patriotic. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is about the same size as the red-bellied woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service                  The uncommon red-headed woodpecker deserves its common name because it, and not the related red-bellied woodpecker, has an entirely red head.

All woodpeckers are noisy when the mood strikes them, but the red-headed and red-bellied have always struck me as rather more clamorous than some of their relatives. The most common call of the red-bellied woodpecker is a sort of rolling “churr” repeated frequently while the bird is on the move from tree to tree.

To enjoy close views of the red-bellied woodpecker, provide plenty of peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet cakes. If there are any of them in the woods nearby, they will find these food offerings in short order. All my research indicates the same is true of red-headed woodpeckers, but I’ve never observed this woodpecker at my home. I’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers in Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, but their populations are somewhat localized. Woodlands dominated by oak trees are often inhabited by both these woodpeckers, which are fond of the acorns produced by these trees.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens           A female red-bellied woodpecker peers around a tree trunk.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands with an abundance of oak trees.

At feeders, red-bellied woodpeckers are prickly customers that often refuse to play nice with other birds. I’ve seen them stare down other large feeder birds, including blue jays, mourning doves and evening grosbeaks. With its large bill, the red-bellied woodpecker commands some respect.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Although once considered a bird of the southeastern United States, the red-bellied woodpecker has expanded its range north and west during the past century.

Anyone who has hosted these birds knows they are a welcome visitor to any yard. Who knows? Some day I may even get a visit from the elusive red-headed woodpecker, which is the only woodpecker resident in the region to thus far avoid my yard.

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Photo by Mark Stevens     A promotional sign for Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina bears the image of a red-bellied woodpecker.

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Northern flicker one of America’s most widespread woodpeckers

 
Facebook friend Melissa Hale posted on my page about her discovery of an unusual feather.
 

“I think I have found a feather from a yellow-shafted flicker,” she wrote. “Do we even have these around here?” She noted that she has heard several species of woodpecker around her home and added that daughter Heather has seen quite a few different woodpeckers around their home.

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Photo by Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service              The extended wing of this Northern flicker shows how the eastern race of this woodpecker is known as the “yellow-shafted” form.

 
I posted back that she probably had found a flicker’s feather. The name “yellow-shafted flicker” is one of a great many common names for this medium-sized woodpecker, which is known by birders as the Northern flicker. The phrase “yellow-shafted” describes the Eastern race of this woodpecker, which is replaced in the western United States by the “red-shafted” flicker. In reality, both the yellow and red-shafted birds are considered by experts to be the same species. The yellow feathers in Eastern birds are found under the wings and on the tail. The yellow, or red, sections of the wings are most visible when the bird is in flight. I’ve seen both forms of this woodpecker, observing the red-shafted form of the Northern flicker during trips to Utah in 2003 and 2006.
 
Melissa described the feather as “one of the most beautiful feathers I have ever seen,” which is not too surprising. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern Flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. 
 

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is usually not absent from the region in the winter season.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service          The Northern Flicker resides in open habitats near trees, including woodlands edges, suburban yards, city parks and orchards.

 
As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.
 
The Northern flicker — both the yellow- and red-shafted races — is not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers. 
 
The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated flicker, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months. 10683622_10204092032613488_952638671796664703_o 2
 
If you search for flickers, however, don’t concentrate all your scanning on tree trunks. These woodpeckers spend a lot of time in field or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet. 
 

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart from a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                  A Northern Flickers looks out from its nesting cavity.

 
The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. 
 

A couple members of the flicker clan are now extinct. The human introduction of cats and goats to Guadalupe Island, offshore from the western coast of Baja California, Mexico, led to the extinction of this woodpecker in 1906. The Bermuda flicker apparently died out centuries ago, although a few may have lingered into the 17th century. John Smith, the early explorer associated with the Jamestown colony of Virginia, may have written of the Bermuda flicker in a journal recording his voyages. 

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English-born John Abbot explored southeastern Georgia, collecting specimens and painting birds such as this Northern Flicker during the Revolutionary era in Colonial America.

 
Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your feeders. 
 
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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Region’s largest woodpecker always makes big impression

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                         The downy woodpecker is the smallest of its kind in the region. Its largest relative is the crow-sized pileated woodpecker.

In recent posts, I’ve discussed the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a definite oddball among the region’s woodpeckers, as well as the downy woodpecker, which is the smallest member of this clan of tree-hugging birds. This week I’d like to discuss the pileated woodpecker. On the other end of the size scale from the downy, the pileated woodpecker ranks as the largest member of this family of birds to make its home in the United States.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                                                     The pileated woodpecker, despite its size and noisy personality, is a rather shy bird.

The large pileated woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                              The pileated woodpecker, if the ivory-billed woodpecker is truly extinct, reigns as the largest woodpecker in the United States.

At one point, the pileated woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the ivory-billed woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the ivory-billed woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the pileated woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the pileated woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Although the pileated woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest. Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these pileated woodpeckers in the process of foraging for food.

As mentioned earlier, the pileated woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of pileated woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The pileated woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the pileated woodpecker usually goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                This pileated woodpecker was photographed at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina in 2015.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by pileated woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The pileated woodpecker ranges across the continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.