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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
April 23, 2019

8/5/2015 2:11:00 PM
Birding with Don Reimer: Armchair Safari-
Juvenile Hairy Woodpecker (Photos by Don Reimer)
Juvenile Hairy Woodpecker (Photos by Don Reimer)
Juvenile Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Juvenile Red-Bellied Woodpecker
by Don Reimer

It is not uncommon for adventurous birders to trek to remote destinations in search of interesting and exotic birds. Sticking closer to the home front these days, I'm enjoying a sort of armchair safari just outside my front picture window. What does my safari site look like? It contains several bird feeders suspended from the lower limbs of a large maple tree to fend off pirating gray squirrels. Two tubular nectar feeders hang from a shepherd's hook to keep several ruby-throated hummers fed and occupied. Generous handfuls of loose seed lie scattered on the ground to attract sparrows, jays and cardinals.

With natural-food stores being so plentiful, I acknowledge that summer birds would survive and thrive without my meager efforts. In truth, feeding birds is as much for our sake as for the birds. The most active features in my yard involve a couple of suet blocks in bent-wire holders. These squared blocks are the manufactured commercial variety, since pure beef suet can turn rancid under warm summer temperatures.

Competition for the suety snacks draws an array of species into close view that would not normally forage together. This affords opportunities to make inter-species comparisons in terms of sizes, shapes, social relationships and innate behaviors.

Recently a White-Breasted Nuthatch and Black-Capped Chickadee momentarily occupied a common perch. Superficially similar in appearance, both birds shared basic characteristics - a black cap, gray back and white belly. Their relative size, shape and diagnostic feather patterns were distinctly unique, however.

As a group, woodpeckers are huge suet enthusiasts. Woodpeckers have sturdy bills and a probing tongue purposely designed to extract food matter from crevices and cavities. My summer safari list of woodpeckers includes Downy, Hairy, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and Red-Bellied.

The juvenile birds are perhaps the most entertaining and instructive. I watch their daily progress as the young birds have grown in size and confidence. Arriving with their parents, the newly fledged birds had wing-quivered and begged for food with gaping mouths. Days later they approached the feeders with caution, but ultimately they gain confidence to visit and feed independently.

The juvenile plumage stage is the bird's first actual coat of feathers. As such, juvenile feathers are often mottled or streaked and generally more camouflaged than the adults'. This inconspicuous look may serve to keep these young, inexperienced birds safer from predators.

Juvenile plumages can change rapidly, transitioning toward more adult status within a period of weeks in some cases. Check out my Hairy Woodpecker photo as a case in point. It's a juvenile male. How do we know? Notice the reddish patch on its fore-crown. Lasting only through July and August, this temporary patch of feathers will soon molt away to be replaced by a permanent red patch on the bird's nape.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are always a treat in Maine. A Southeastern species that rarely occurred in New England two decades ago, these handsome woodpeckers are now regular breeders here. My neighborhood pair fledged two young this summer. The key identification clue for juvenile Red-Bellied is the black-and-white-barred back. A poorly named species, don't expect to see a prominent red belly. Even on adults, the belly color is diffuse and usually hard to see. By fall though, the two juveniles will quickly evolve to resemble their orange-headed parents.

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