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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Flickers and Other Fall Birds at Cattle Point

I went down to Cattle Point on this sunny afternoon expecting to spend most of my time looking at seabirds, but I was stopped before I got to the coast by the antics of about half a dozen northern flickers who were busily chattering and flying from tree to tree. After watching them for a few minutes I realized that one of the reasons for all the excitement was the presence of a merlin in the same patch of trees, which every so often would chase one of the flickers around the prairie and then back into the trees. It was quite a sight! Despite half an hour of observation I wasn't able to get a photo of both birds in the same frame - they were just too fast!

Northern flicker (red-shafted) in flight
Merlin in flight
I noticed a glimpse of a different color on one of the flickers, and sure enough it was a yellow-shafted color morph! Formerly considered separate species, the red-shafted (primarily western) and yellow-shafted (primarily eastern) birds were merged into one species, the northern flicker. The yellow-shafted form also breeds in Alaska, and some birds are occasionally seen in the western Lower 48, particularly in winter.

No doubt about it - this is a yellow-shafted flicker!
While the color is most noticeable in the underwings, they're called red- and yellow-shafted because the shafts of the feathers are indeed different colors. You can see the red shafts on this flying flicker:


There are some other subtle differences more apparent in perched birds, too, relating to the presence and color of the mustache and nape crescent.

This female red-shafted flicker has a pale brown mustache (and has red under the tail)
This female yellow-shafted flicker has no mustache (notice the yellow just visible by either wing)
While watching all the woodpecker activity I did get a glimpse of one other woodpecker - a red-breasted sapsucker (197). I was a bit surprised when I checked my list that this was in fact a year bird; I thought maybe I had seen one, but I guess not! I finally tore myself away from the flickers and checked out what other birds were around. There was quite a bit of raptor activity in addition the merlin - a northern harrier, a bald eagle, and three red-tailed hawks. I also saw my first northern shrike of the season, which was a really nice find!

When I made it to the shoreline at last there was a lot of bird activity there as well. It looks like most of the Heermann's gulls have moved on, as I didn't see any today, but there were lots of glaucous-winged and mew gulls feeding on several small bait balls with one Bonaparte's gull in the mix as well. As far as diving birds go, more and more of winter resident birds are returning. I saw surf scoters, red-breasted mergansers, and horned grebes in addition to the year-round resident pelagic cormorants. Further signs of winter were the pigeon guillemots adorned in their winter plumage and the presence of only two rhinoceros auklets (most of them head to the outer coast to feed for the winter). A couple of other people were out enjoying the crisp autumn day, and it was cool to hear one of them comment that seeing the beautiful male harlequin ducks was the highlight of her day.

I had to put my binoculars down when I heard a loud chuff down below me. It was a big male Steller sea lion coming up for air in Cattle Pass!


Another noise redirected my binoculars at one point, and it turned out to be the calling of a black turnstone in flight. There was only one, but it was another nice find. Overall, it was a pleasant afternoon at Cattle Point, and after a little over an hour my bird list totaled out to 23 species.

2 comments:

eileeninmd said...

Hi Monika, cool capture of the flickers. Very neat to see both the red and yellow version of the flickers.

S.P. Laws said...

Thank you for these wonderful photos. I was able to ID a bird that landed in a tree off my deck- a flicker! Great photos :)