Sunday, January 11, 2009

My other addiction...

Many of my "doggie friends" will be surprised that I have another hobby that can suck up all my spare time....since moving to my current home about 2 1/2 years ago, I have gotten addicted to watching the birds who come to my feeders on a daily basis. After I finished packing, sorting, throwing away, and moving all the JUNK I had accumulated in my previous home, I decided I could not have any new hobbies that involved collecting anything I had to move, store, clean up after, or feed. For someone who gets a weird little thrill out of seeing "complete sets" of anything in their possession (especially books), this was a problem!

Shortly after my move, however, I discovered that I now lived in bird heaven. My back yard slopes down to the woods; the woods extend all the way down to Gunpowder Creek and I own as far as the flood plain along the creek. Just behind the lots on the other side of the street is a large farm field which currently sits empty. Between the woods and the field, it's an ideal habitat to see lots of birds. AND I can "collect" them (I keep an excel spreadsheet that tracks the birds I see on days I have time to really sit and watch) without having them clutter up my house!

My very favorite group of birds are the woodpeckers. Luckily for me, my yard provides ideal habitat for them and I am lucky enough to have all seven species native to Kentucky as regular visitors to my feeders. This little guy is a Downy woodpecker. It's rare to go more than five minutes without seeing one on the suet or sometimes the black oil sunflower seed, and at times there are half a dozen or more there at the same time. This little guy is a male, identifiable by the red patch on the back of his head. Females don't have any red.

Here to the left is his bigger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. They look very similar, including the red patch on the males, but the Hairy is about twice the size of the Downy. If you look closely, you can see he also has a larger, longer beak in proportion to his head. Telling them apart at a distance, especially with no other birds nearby to compare to for size, takes practice. The Hairies are not nearly so numerous as the Downies, but they still are at my feeder almost every day. Last August there was an oil spill into the creek at the end of my street; for weeks afterward they worked round the clock with lights blazing and equipment going all night. My bird numbers dropped dramatically and are just now starting to rebound. The Hairies have been the slowest of all the woodpeckers to return.

To the right is another common daily visitor, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. If you look really closely, you can see the slight reddish blush on the belly. REALLY closely. It's there, I promise! These guys like both the suet and the Nutty Safari mix that costs more than a steak dinner. When they fly towards you they look kind of like torpedos going through the air. Below you can see a profile view of that bright, almost orange red head. This is a male; on the females the red does not extend as far down over the forehead, kind of like a receding hairline.

These guys are probably the boldest of the woodpeckers and don't take any guff from any of the other birds. They also are the easiest to identify different individuals, at least for me. They all have slightly different head patterns and behaviors. At any given time, I usually have 4 or 5 individuals who hang out in my general area and visit the feeders; maybe more, but that's how many I have identified at a time. These guys are also among the easiest to spot down in the woods on the trees. (They kind of look like a hunter wearing a blaze orange cap!).

To the right is probably my least frequent feeder visitor, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. I see them down in the woods pretty often, especially in cold weather, but they are by far the scarcest of the bunch. I always think of them as "Dirty Hairies". To me, when I first catch a glimpse of them hanging onto a tree they at first glance look like a Hairy who got muddy. Your first clue for identification however is behavior. While most of the woodpeckers flit from tree to tree pretty quickly and rarely spend more than a couple of minutes in one spot, the sapsuckers seem to stay on one tree and move up and down or around. They don't actually move much at all, in comparison, and a couple of times my first thought has been that they are a big glob of mud. The second easy identifier is that downies and hairies have white backs between their wings; sapsuckers have sort of mottled bars. Whites on the other woodpeckers are bright whites, but sapsuckers have more of a slightly dirty looking buff. The yellow belly is difficult to appreciate when they are perching, but can look quite yellow when they take off in flight.

To the left is my next rarest visitor, the Northern (yellow-shafted) Flicker. Lately though he has been a near- daily visitor to my suet feeder. Last year he would visit occasionally, but more often I would spy him in the underbrush near the edge of the woods, very low to the ground. Either word has spread about the good grub, or their numbers are increasing because they've been around a lot. If you look at the underside of the tail, you can see the "yellow shafts" of the feathers that give part of the name (there is a red shafted varient too, not seen in our area). These also show up quite nicely on the undersides of the wings when they take off. These guys aren't the most colorful around, but I just love their sharp pattern with the black breast plate and the "grease paint" below their eyes like a football player. The black "whisker" below the eyes is only seen on males. Hmm. Can't say I've ever seen a human woman using the grease paint either.

Probably the most impressive woodpecker to visit, and certainly the largest, is the Pileated. These guys are the ones you think of when you see Woody Woodpecker, and are almost prehistoric looking and sounding as they fly through the woods. They really love the creek bottoms so my yard is perfect for them. It is a rare day when I don't hear them drumming or calling, and most days they visit the suet feeder as well. They are rather shy but now I can move around the living room without scaring them off as long as I'm not too close to the window.
This one is a female; the males have a red streak on their cheeks below the eye. I am pretty sure there are at least two breeding pairs that visit occasionally.

The first time (to my knowledge) that one came to the feeders I was dragged out of a deep sleep one morning by an ungodly noise. It sounded like someone was jackhammering in my living room. I jumped up to see what was going on, and there was a pileated drilling on my gas grill on the deck. I think he was trying to enlarge the vent hole at the end and make it into a nesting cavity (he had no luck, but later a startling was able to fit through and steal his idea!). It nearly scared the life out of me!

These are ALMOST my favorites of the woodpeckers....but they are just barely edged out by...

The Red-Headed Woodpecker. I LOVE these guys- they are SO sharp looking. They are not terribly common anymore, and are not seen often at feeders. I have never seen them at my suet feeders, but they come for the Nutty Safari; what they REALLY love, however, is dehydrated banana chips. They show up in April and until August or September visit several times daily. They come until the banana chips are gone, then check back several times to see if I put any more out. If they HAVE to they make due with some nuts. They are quite interesting to watch as they carry all this away and stash it in crevices in the trees in the woods. I always wonder how much they actually get to eat, and how much the squirrels find and steal.

The male and the female almost always come together (I don't believe you can tell them apart by looking, at least I can't). I know they are a breeding pair though because the past two summers they have produced babies. Last year there were at least three that made it to fledgling status. The first time I saw one of the juveniles, it took me a while to figure it out. Where the adults are red, they are a dull brown; and their black isn't nearly as shiny and sharp either, it's also a bit brownish.
I miss my favorites in the winter time, but I look forward to seeing them again in the spring!
***These photos, and all photos in the blog unless otherwise stated, are copyright to Rebecca L. Golatzki DVM. Please do not use without permission.


  1. Lovely woodpecker photos! I am so jealous of your variety, especially the Pileated and the Red-headed. I don't have enough big, old trees for either of these species, nor do I get Hairy Woodpeckers here. I get Downies, Red-bellieds, and occasionally flickers (mostly in summer.) I had my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as a one-time visitor this winter.

    I'd loved to see your set-up some day!


  2. Have only had the red-headed visit twice in 17 years' watching.
    So nice to see your collection of photos!

  3. Hey Becky. We have had all of them except the Pileated and Red Headed. The sapsuckers and the flickers are becoming more common to us, but the first 8 years we feed, we barely saw any. Only in the last couple of years. Maybe between the birdfeeders we can increase their numbers. Love the pics!