Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Out on a Limb

A single, small bird sitting on limb, hidden among the leaves and softly calling does not get much attention from the folks jogging out to Foster Island. None the less, there is a story to tell about how this little bird came to be sitting in a tree near the Empress tree.

First, lets establish the type of bird. Our little bird is black with alternating white-to-light-grey spots, markings and stripes. It has the straight, sharp bill of a woodpecker but, due to its smaller size and shape, it is clearly not a pileated woodpecker like Elvis. Due to its coloring we know it is not a Flicker. Here on Union Bay that leaves us with two options, for the most part. This bird is either a Hairy or a Downy woodpecker. Which do you think it is?

A Hairy Woodpecker

 A Downy Woodpecker

The Downy averages around six inches long and the Hairy is roughly 50 percent larger. However unless you are extremely lucky, and get them to pose side by side or next to a ruler, the size differences may not be very helpful. Do you see any other differences that might help you distinguish between these birds?

The answer is in comparing the length of the beak to the size of their heads. The Downy's beak is about one half the size of its head, while the Hairy's beak is closer to two thirds. Based on this information we can determine that our little bird is a Downy. 

The age of the bird also has intertwined in this story. So take a closer look to see if you can find any age related hints.
The way the feathers on the head are fluffy and clean is a hint. In particular, the lack of discoloration on the feathers just above and behind the beak (unlike the female in the prior photo) indicate this bird has not spent the spring sticking its beak into crevices and crannies to find food. Which implies this is not a parent but a fledging that has just left the nest. 

You may wonder, Is there anything else to know about this bird? Take a look at this next photo of a Downy looking for food in the rain last winter.
Did you notice the bright red patch on the back of the head? This indicates the bird is a male. So we must conclude our young little Downy is a female. Is this the whole story of our little bird? Not quite.

During the winter this bird's parents would have spent a lot of time searching for food to maintain and hopefully build up their energy reserves. Examples include looking for food under,

over and around small limbs.

Sometimes the search would have included larger branches and meals.

Come spring there was a large expenditure of energy to build a new nest.
Notice how the perfectly round, little nesting hole (most likely less than one and a half inches) is somewhat hidden in the shadow under the clump of bark. 

It is also close to a previous year's hole which makes one wonder if they are connected inside the tree.

Maybe the male Downy was curious as well.

Still the preparations for nesting were not all hard work.

Eventually the eggs were laid, the nesting began and finally our young bird hatch out and began to ask for food.

That is when the real work began. There was a lot of coming and going...

usually with food.

To take a look at video of the feeding process, Click Here

Sometimes the meals were a bit difficult to define.

Sometimes danger lurked nearby. Notice how the nestling pulled back into the nest and the mother hid on the other side of the tree.

Through all the hard work and danger the parents persevered and at least one of the results was this beautiful, little bird beside the trail to Foster Island.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city.


Odds and Ends:

In this last photo it looks as though the female Downy is shocked to see a face staring at her from the clump of wood bark on her right. Can you find a face? For me it seems to shift back a forth usually I see the face of a person but sometimes the face of an ape seems to be lurking in the shadows. Good Luck!


  1. What a *wonderful* post, Larry! I love the way you've woven the yarn of this little bird's story. Beautifully told and illustrated.

  2. Fantastic post - thanks, Larry!
    - Sarah Oyer

    1. You are welcome. May and June are the most wonderful months for photographing nature and birds. It feels like I have been running almost non-stop from one place to another trying to keep up on all the new life and phenonmenal growth. It has been a challenge, but the reward had been worth the effort. Next week's post may very well be my favorite for the year.

  3. Beautifully presented! Thank you for all your wonderful posts. - Valerie Boen

  4. Baby birds - what a treat and to get a great photo is a gift to us all. Not easy by any means. R

  5. Baby birds - what a treat and to get a great photo is a gift to us all. Not easy by any means. R

  6. Wonderful series of images of those sweet Downys. They are few and far between in our woods on Whidbey, where Hairy Woodpeckers predominate. Great to see all the activity you've documented.

    1. Thank you! By the way that is your tree the Hairy Woodpecker is inspecting. Thanks again. ;-)