Monday, April 2, 2018

All About Flickers

Here is a recent post from the Union Bay Watch Blog published by Larry Hubbell, long-time local photographer and birder. 

Here also is an in-depth article about Larry and his work.

Flicker Antics

Flickers are fun! They are colorful, plentiful and occasionally vocal enough to pierce the din of my internal focus. Even with doors and windows shut, a flicker's loud, long and incessant song will often grab me by the ear and drag me out into the world. 

Admittedly, flickers can occasionally be irritating. The songs of our western, red-shafted flickers remind me of the aggravating and repetitive tune for children, 'The Song That Never Ends'. Still, their songs are useful. Their music delineates their nesting territories and helps the female flickers find a quality mate.

In addition to calling from the top of a tree or a dead snag, male red-shafted flickers, which are most easily differentiated by their red cheek-patches, also drum on naturally provided 'sounding boards'.

When the drumming occurs on the metal cap on top of a furnace vent it can be especially loud and annoying for the human inhabitants of the home. However, when it happens on the top of a snag (where the drumming is actually significantly quieter) it apparently sounds very attractive to female flickers. 

The is the same snag and same drum board as in the previous photo. It was just taken on a different day with different light and a slightly different angle. It might even be the same male.

It is a bit difficult to see in this photo but our local female Northern Flickers lack the bright red facial markings. In this case, it looked as though the male had excavated a nest and was hoping the female would accept his affection and join him in raising their young.

Being thoughtful and careful, the female decided to inspect the accommodations before accepting the offer. I must admit, the entrance to the nest looked a bit small to me.

Having seen a smaller Red-breasted Sapsucker nearby, I wondered whether the male flicker was actually the true excavator of the site. 

To be fair, earlier in the month I did see this male, possibly the same one, hanging out at the hole in question. Although, even then the hole looked fairly small for the size of the flicker.

I did not see the female attempt to actually to enter the hole. She also did not immediately fly away laughing. The male hopped down to a nearby horizontal branch. Given that horizontal surfaces are much more effective for mating, it seemed to me that the male was hoping to take the relationship to the next level.

The female came closer and the male's excitement at the prospect seemed visible. 

Often during courtship, and during territorial competitions, flickers will expose the underside of their most colorful feathers to each other. Here you can see a small splash of orange under his tail.

In our western variety of the Northern Flicker, e.g. the red-shafted subspecies, the undersides of their wing and tail feathers are normally a brilliant orange. At certain angles the salmon coloring is most intense on the shafts of the feathers. As far as I have seen, these feathers are only intentionally displayed to members of their own species. 

My son once suggested that the subspecies may have been named 'red-shafted' many decades ago, at a time when the colors orange and red were both often referred to as being shades of red. 

Earlier in the month, I watched two male flickers dispute the ownership of a tree. This mostly dead snag also had a drumming board at the top and may have contained a hidden nest site which I was unable find. 

To keep these face-offs from becoming violent, the flickers resort to intimidation via endowment. It seems similar to human males yelling and trying to look tough.

Among our flickers, this is accomplished by exposing their salmon-colored feathers to their opponent. From my perspective, the feathers of this particular male looked a bit less colorful than normal.

In any case, one of the two males flew away and the 'winner' ended up at the sounding board on top of the snag. 

Note: We believe the red chevron on the back of the head indicates that this bird has at least some genetic material supplied from the eastern, yellow-shafted subspecies of the Northern Flicker.

A few days ago, on a third snag I watched another male-female interaction. The male's song attracted a female towards the lower portion of the tree.

The male came down from the top of the snag while flashing his beautiful wings.

Somehow, he found a way to momentarily expose his complete endowment without falling from the sky.

I suspect this must have been a fairly mature female as she appeared only mildly interested.

She did inspect at least two of the multiple holes on this tree.

I am fairly certain this second site, was created last spring by Chip, our local Pileated Woodpecker. Locally at least, the Pileated Woodpeckers tend to make egg-shaped holes while the Northern Flickers holes are a bit smaller and much more round. Chip's mate, Goldie choose not to use the site and lately I believe an Eastern Gray Squirrel has taken over the nest.

Back at the original snag the female avoided the male and his affections. She flew to a nearby branch. The male moved back to the top of the snag and started drumming again. Apparently, with a more complete understanding of the situation, the female flew away. At which point the male took his efforts to the next level. He stopped the subtle drumming and burst into what sounded like the loudest possible version of his song.

Clearly, the time for watching flicker courtship is upon us. I suggest listening for long incessant songs, subtle drumming and watching for flashes of brilliant orange. Flicker Antics is a show you do not want to miss.

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