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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Picidae, Picidae, What do you see?

What kind of bird is this? 

Seen yesterday on Foster Island this is most likely Elvis the pileated woodpecker. He has his beak tucked under his wing while he is doing a little grooming. It makes for an interesting angle with the peak of his head pointed at the ground. 

If you look at the photo from a distance and maybe blur your eyes a bit you can almost think of the peak as a beak and he starts to look like a one-of-kind, red-faced bufflehead. O.K., maybe that is over doing the creative angle a bit. :-)

How about this one?

Also seen yesterday on Foster Island, this is obviously a flicker. But take a moment and compare this bird with two seen on Wednesday morning.

The lighting is different so the first bird has a nice golden tone that the other two lack, however that is not one of the differences between the birds. Two of the three flickers (and Elvis) have a marking that indicates they are male woodpeckers. It is the red malar stripe on their cheeks. The female does not have any red on her face.

The last two birds also have orange feathers showing on the underside of their tails. Along with the red malar stripe on the male this indicates they belong to the red-shafted, western branch of the northern flicker family. The males of the yellow-shafted (or eastern portion) of the northern flicker family have black malar stripes, yellow under their tails & wings and a red marking on the nape of the neck.

Surprisingly our first flicker has the red cheeks of a red-shafted and also red on the back of the neck. My best guess is that this fellow had ancestors from both the east and the west.  In the Sibley guide he says, "Intergrades occur frequently..." but he does not mention or show this particular combination of markings.

So next time you take a walk in the park be sure to look closely at the flickers you meet. It can be fun to figure out their gender and even some of their family history with just a glance. 
If you would like to check out a few more variations on the flicker theme click here.

Here are a few more shots from yesterday on Foster Island.

It is interesting how sometimes his crest is more upright. It certainly gives him a surprised look.

How close were you looking?

Are the two pileated woodpeckers in this photo a surprise? Did you notice that one of the previous photos was not a male, but actually a female. If you click on the photo for a larger view you can even see that the iris of her eye is a bit more orange while his is yellow.

To prove that the color difference is not just the angle of the light. Here are two photos from the same location, however one photo is of the male and one of the female. Can you see the difference?

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



  1. The pileated often work in pairs on the dead trees in and around St. Edward state park. Great pictures.

    1. Thank you! It has been a number of years since I have been up that way. I remember lots woods with open spaces near some buildings. I will add St. Edwards to my list of potential birding spots.

  2. Great post! I didn't know that the stripe on the back of the head of the flicker had any significance.

    I have been birding in the Arboretum and around Seattle for many years, and still haven't seen a Pileated. Do you have any tips?

  3. I can tell you what seems to work for me. I think they are out and about on sunny days more than rainy days. This morning in the rain I did not see them at all. However I saw fresh wood chips or excavations near the mouth of Arboretum Creek, below the tree that is 2 east of the empress tree e.g. north of Don Graham on the trail to Foster Island and of course I saw them on the south end of Foster Island Friday morning. They can be on dead snags from ground level up. Usually if they are at the top of a tree they will fly soon. However they usually land within 100 to 400 yards. If you can keep them in sight you can often track them for quite awhile when they are feeding. I also listen for their call and the sound of their pecking.