Bird Lady Blog

September 19, 2014

The Case of the Fallen Feather

Filed under: Northern Flicker — Munds Park Birding @ 2:14 pm
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Northern Flicker Tail Feather

Northern Flicker Tail Feather

We were visiting family in San Diego a couple of weeks ago and in the middle of the at-home happy hour there, I received a text and photo from Andy: “We found this feather while hiking in Munds Park. What bird is it from?”  At first glance I didn’t know, so I showed the photo on my phone to Andrew, our niece’s husband, who (conveniently for me) works in one of the bird departments of the San Diego Safari Park, previously called the Wild Animal Park.  Andrew was sitting in front of the television with the rest of the men watching pre-season football.  He manages a department that handles rare bird egg incubation and raising chicks and has cool projects like transporting captivity- bred California Condors for release into the wild in Idaho.

Andrew didn’t know whose feather it was either, so he asked me from across the room, “What is your cell phone number”? He then texted me, and I texted back to him the photo sent to me by my hiking friend.  Next Andrew texted the photo to two of his Safari Park work colleagues, Tiana and Jenny.  Almost immediately one of them responded back:  “What habitat”?  He texted back:  “High elevation, pine forest”.  Then Jenny sent us a link to a photo she found using the internet connection on her phone – and it was dead on!  A Northern Flicker tail feather.  In the meantime, both Andrew and I were using our bird apps (I use iBird and also Peterson’s) on our phone to pull up more photos.  In the span of about five minutes and with the awesome help of technology, we were able to text back to Andy the identity of the tail feather.  The rest of the wine-and-beer sipping relatives in the room were thinking we were bird nerds, but we were actually quite proud of figuring out the mystery of the Fallen Feather.

The Northern Flicker we have in Munds Park, Flagstaff, and even the desert around Phoenix is the Red Shafted species. The Yellow-Shafted Flicker is found in the East.  However, the two forms have hybridized extensively and are now considered one species called “Northern Flicker”.  There is also a “Gilded Flicker” that is found in the southwest deserts, but it is much harder to see.  The Northern Flicker is a large woodpecker that has a black crescent on its breast, red side mustaches, and is pretty easy to identify when flying because of its prominent white rump patch.  It tends to forage on the ground, eating ants, beetles, and other insects.   It is more likely to fly on your hummingbird feeder and suck out the sugar water with its long tongue rather than frequent a seed bird feeder.  Why did this one lose a tail feather?  It’s molting season!  Nests were built, eggs hatched, and babies raised.  So now is the time to grow in new feathers to prepare for the next season.

The Fallen Feather episode really makes me appreciate again the many forms of technology we have at our fingertips.  It probably was entertaining watching Andrew and me excitedly solve the mystery of the feather by texting, surfing the internet, scrolling through our bird guides, and sending photos using just our cell phones.  My favorite birding app is iBird Plus and it quickly seems to be replacing my books.  However, I still treasure the very large Audubon’s “Birds of America” volume my parents bought me when I was 11 years old.  Not only does it have extensive information in it, but it also takes me back to happy times pouring over the pages and first discovering the many species of birds we have here in the States and their unique characteristics.


Harder to Find Birds

western tanager 2There are many common birds here – including the two species of Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, American Robins, Steller’s Jay, Acorn Woodpeckers, Band-Tailed Pigeons, Lesser Goldfinch, and Pine Siskins. But some species are harder to spot, and four of those are the subject of this article.

The Brown Creeper was one of the first birds I saw when we were house hunting in Munds Park. That is rather surprising, because since then I’ve only seen a Brown Creeper once or twice each year.  It is like a Nuthatch in that it clings to and climbs on trees searching for insects, larvae, nuts, and seeds, but there are some major differences.  First, the Brown Creeper has drab, streaky brown upperparts and is rather slender.  It’s a very quiet bird and solitary – contrast that to the noisy little Pygmy Nuthatches that arrive in a group at our feeders.  The biggest difference in my opinion is that it creeps up a tree – almost always up.

A second hard-to-see bird is the Red Crossbill. The first time I saw this one was at Kathy and Cindi’s house on Turkey Trail a couple of summers ago.  This last month when I was driving on the cart path on hole 18 at Pinewood Country Club on a Friday, I saw a reddish bird in the path in front of me.  It flew up into a pine tree, and I got my binoculars on it and confirmed – a Red Crossbill.  Red Crossbills are a medium-sized finch with a red-orange body, bright red rump, and dark brown wings.  But what is really distinct are their bills, which are crossed at the tip, enabling them to pry seeds from the cones of junipers and spruces.

The third species was reported to me by Lu on Lake Odell, who sent in a photo, and Martha on Reindeer, who saw it at her birdbath. It is the Western Tanager, a bird with a brilliant red head, bright yellow body, and black back, wings and tail.  When this bird appears, you utter a “wow” because it is so striking.  It is found only in the Western parts of the continent and migrates all the way to Central America.  This species was first recorded on the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1803 to 1806.

The last species as part of this article is the White-Faced Ibis. It is a medium-sized wading bird that occasionally shows up at the ponds on the Pinewood Country Club golf course or in the marshy area near the Pinewood Sanitary District.  Carol A. told me she saw one while golfing in July, and I had the pleasure of seeing one in about the same spot a few years ago.  The white face is only a thin band of white feathers around its bare, red face.  The rest of its body is a dark brown with a sheen or gloss that shows up in the right light as bronze or green. It hunts for invertebrates like insects, worms, snails, and also frogs and small fish.  The White-Faced Ibis nests in colonies, so usually you will find more than one at a time.

One thing in common about all these species is that they are monogamous. How do we know that?  Well, for me, I just read the research papers and believe the ornithologists who figure that all out.  But I did learn that there are at least two types of “monogamous” when it comes to birds:  mating for life (e.g., Canada Geese who may not even migrate if their mate has died), and serial monogamy (when a bird mates with another for one season but finds a new mate the next season).  I hope you learned something new with this article, and as for me, I always find a tidbit or two that keeps me on my toes when it comes to the birds in Munds Park.


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