Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Northern Flicker

  Northern (Common) Flicker - Male- Bob Moul
Every year I discover at least one new species that was in front of me all along.  This spring it was the Northern Flicker.  We were visiting friends east of Oldfield and Barb spotted a pair feeding on their grassy yard, occasionally flying up to a tree just outside the second story window.  After she identified it, I naively emailed Charley Burwick to ask if they were common in the Ozarks.  His response confirmed my ignorance.
"During the fall, and again in the spring, like as we speak, they are quite common, and can be spotted in large groups. I led a field trip yesterday, and traveled through the Wah Kan Tah Prairie on the way to visit the Schell-Osage CA. There are large tracts that have been recently burned, and coming back in short green grass. There were somewhere between 80-100 of them feeding mostly on the ground, which is common for this species, and some small trees full of perched flickers as well. They are typically all yellow-shafted."
Northern (Common) Flicker-Female - Yellow Shafted
Then a few days later I was driving across our field along Bull Creek with friends from Minnesota as a dozen birds flush out of the grass one at a time several hundred feet in front of our UTV.  "Flickers," Matt said, pointing out the white patch on their rump that flashes as they flew straight away from us to land in distant trees.  Then I had an "Ahaa" moment.  We have noticed for years that when riding up on the fields on the ridge tops we would scare up 8-10 "woodpeckers" that we identified by their distinctive flight, flapping upward, then gliding down in a gentle vertical zigzag.  Northern Flickers all along!

Next we went to our favorite, Allaboutbirds.com from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Their front page of the Northern Flicker has their call, a sound we have heard commonly and had ascribed to our common Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Embarrassing!

Yellow flight feathers and white rump - Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Details we haven't gotten close enough to see include the yellow shafted flight feathers of the eastern species which are red in the western species.  They eat mainly ants and beetles on the ground unlike their tree-drilling kin.  They have a barbed tongue which can extend 2", handy when you are lapping up ants.

Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers migrate south for the winter.  This makes sense for a ground feeding bird whose supply of insect food would become scarce in freezing temperatures and snow.  This accounts for Charley's observation of large numbers in spring and fall.  Now if I can just recognize them in 6 months!

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