If you are looking for a unique photograph, precipitation always adds a little something. Snowy bird pictures are some of my favorite to take, but in some ways they are also the most challenging. Not only are you exposing yourself, sometimes for extended periods, to cold and damp conditions, but snow can reflect the light in ways that affect the photograph’s exposure. While including snowflakes in the shot is part of the desired effect, they can sometimes wreck havoc on your focus. And then there is also the terrain. Walking in snow and potentially ice, especially with a huge camera lens throwing you off balance, isn’t always fun. But the challenges are part of what makes the experience all the more rewarding, especially when you do get that great snowy bird photograph.
In my experience, the best time to get a snowy bird photograph is after the storm has passed. If you are out in the midst of a storm, trying to find birds to photograph, you will realize that many of the birds are smarter than you. They are tucked away out of the weather somewhere warm and much less exposed.
However, once the storm has passed, out they all come, and they begin rummaging in the snow for food. The search for food can create opportunities for interesting photographs as the birds get snow on their beaks, ruffle their feathers and sometimes seem to be playing. The snow also sometimes helps you spot birds your wouldn’t ordinarily see, as they make more noise knocking snow of branches and other perches. Many birds also show up even more clearly in the snow, their bright feathers making it easier for you to find them in a white blanket of snow.
Winter is really when having feeders out in your yard can put you at a great advantage. Yes, birds will find you any time of the year, but winter is when they will need to visit your feeder the most and you never need to leave the convenience (and warmth) of your own home.
If you are like me and you really enjoy snow and snowfall, you might find yourself out amid the flakes. Just remember to keep an eye on your light exposure, be careful of your footing and be patient. I try to take twice as many photographs in snowy conditions, just to increase my odds of having one decent photograph.
2020 has been a very weird year. While the birds haven’t been affected by Covid-19 in the slightest, in many cases their habitats have seen a drastic increase in human foot traffic this past year. Trail parking lots that would sometimes only see a few cars in the course of a week are now overflowing every weekend and even fairly busy during the week. I can’t blame everyone for wanting to get out and embrace nature. Perhaps a positive, if indirect result of the pandemic will be that it will have created more nature lovers.
There are many discussions and opinions about these nature newbies around the internet, both excitement and concern that people are not acting appropriately (staying on the trail, removing their trash etc.) but I don’t wish to add my voice to the mix on that particular topic. The only reason I brought up the increased attendance is to explain that as a result I have not been hitting the trails as much as I did in previous years.
But, I am learning that you don’t have to go all that far to find wildlife in your own habitat. And I am not just talking about the usually attendees at your bird feeder. I mean wild, wildlife. Just this summer and fall there were notices about a fox, coyote and bear roaming my area (not together obviously). Since relocating to our new nest in July, my husband and I have witnessed quite a few more unusual animals and I am not only referring to our run in with the three young raccoons which I wrote about in July.
Since we had such a hot August, my husband and I made a habit of grilling and sitting on our deck after dinner, once the sun had stopped beating down on the boards. As a result, we often witnessed the transition between day and night. I am not just talking about the color of the sunsets, but also the more subtle transition as the daytime birds and insects start to bed down for the night and nature’s third shift starts to clock in.
One of the things we continually loved to watch was the emergence of the bats. They were amazing to watch, soaring through the air so gracefully. Often watching them feels like witnessing an optical illusion, as they seem to appear and disappear in the fading light. Unfortunately, even after great discussion and thought, it was determined that we don’t have sophisticated enough equipment to photograph the bats at the moment.
One night while on the deck we heard a loud commotion. Some Blue Jays had nested in the large oak behind our house, and they were clearly unhappy. We decided that based on the noise, which included a lot of rustling of leaves, that they must be trying to fend off a predator that had wandered too close to their abode. Sure enough, they soon ran the unwelcome guest off and we saw a large bird fly from our oak and settle in the very top of a large conifer a few backyards away. Despite the lack of direct sunlight, or perhaps because of the dusky lighting, we could see it very clearly. My husband ran to get the camera, and we took a few shots, which considering the lighting conditions, I feel it is fair to say, didn’t turn out half bad. After looking at these photos zoomed in, we can confidently say that it was not a hawk, but an owl that was plaguing the Blue Jays. As you can seen from the photos, the conditions are not ideal for identifying the exact species, general body shape and size being the only features we can use for comparison. If I had to make an educated guess, I would say it was probably a Great Horned Owl.
While we are on the subject of larger birds, just the other day a Red-Tailed Hawk decided to take a rest in the oak tree in my front yard. I only happened to notice it because I was on the porch, putting up some of the outdoor Christmas decorations. By the time I had my camera, it left its perch, but as luck would have it, it decided to settle in a tree behind my neighbor’s house, so I was still able to snap a few photos. After all, what is a long lens for? While the hawk had its back to me the whole time, I managed to get view of its profile, showing his hooked beak. The red of its tail feathers can also be seen, if a bit subtle in the overcast autumn light.
Of course, I would be remiss to write about backyard wildlife and not talk a bit about deer. I am used to seeing deer on my hikes. But until I moved here I was not accustomed to their brazenness. Since we relocated it is not uncommon to look out our kitchen windows into the backyard and see deer, only a few yards from our house or our neighbors’. On the few occasions we have ventured out to take a few pictures, our presence doesn’t startle them in the least. Usually they look up for a few seconds before putting their heads back to the ground and focusing on the task at hand. We aren’t just talking fawns or a few misguided does either. We have had bucks, and on one occasion a pair of bucks, without an indication that they sense even the slightest danger. If anyone needs to be taught about social distancing, it’s them!
In honor of International Friendship day, I thought I would write about birds of a feather getting along. As those of my readers who have feeders will know, one of the great joys of watching birds in your yard is being able to witness their antics. Regardless of the species, as a group they are funny creatures. I personally enjoy watching them interact with their fellow feathered creatures. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to getting along…at least some of the time.
Little birds generally seem less territorial of feeders. They operate on a “the more the merrier” mentality. I guess when you are that small, a full feeder represents more than you could possibly eat. It has been my observation that most of the smaller birds, sparrows, finches and nuthatches, among others take a flight rather than fight approach the minute an interaction turns the slightest confrontational. This makes sense, given their size. I have noticed that the House Sparrows are also either the most forgiving or the birds with the shortest memory, because two seconds after taking off, back they come for another pass at the feeders.
With bigger birds, it really depends on who they’re interacting with. Blue Jays often use the strategy of crashing in and scaring everyone away. Like a fighter jet, they are in and out again before you are even sure what happened. In comparison, the Northern Cardinals just stand their ground and voice their displeasure, usually pushing up their crest feathers, just in case the rest of their body language hadn’t made their feelings clear enough to the transgressor. But the Cardinals are pretty unpredictable. Sometimes they are happy to share and other days they want all the grub to themselves.
Woodpeckers also seem to have trouble sharing. At times I can totally understand their mood. They are usually hanging from the suet feeder and they only just find a good spot, the feeder only just stops rocking and they are digging their bills into some good chow when suddenly someone lands on the suet and starts the whole thing rocking again. That would annoy anyone! Most times they grab a few bits and cut their losses but I have seen a few get a bit snippy with the offender. One spring a juvenile Downy Woodpecker got tough with a juvenile House Sparrow. The House Sparrow gave it right back, but he did have several brothers to back him up.
Mourning Doves are a gentle giant, usually happy to share with everyone or to clear out if the other bird seems the slightest bit tough. I have seen a few Mourning Doves push other birds away at the feeders on occasion, but it is really rare behavior.
Baltimore Orioles are another story altogether. It is like their beauty makes them God’s gift to the forest. They do not like sharing with anyone and they will fight for what they feel is theirs. Unfortunately for one Male Baltimore Oriole I observed, the Grey Catbird he was challenging was not really in the mood to be pushed around and gave it right back!
While the fighting is funny to watch, I think I do prefer when everyone is getting along nicely at my feeders. Much less spilled seed and more opportunities to get good photos than when they are all ruffled and flitting around to get after each other. I guess all we can do is hope that they settle their own disputes amicably and co-exist peacefully.
2020 has been a year of big changes for my husband and I. I won’t go into detail, as most of the changes aren’t really relevant to this blog. One change however, is. We moved. We still live in Northern New Jersey, and we are actually only one town over and about nine minutes up the road from our previous residence, but my whole bird feeding set-up has changed.
For starters, I have two feeding stations. During the course of moving I found my original feeder pole, which has definitely seen better days. Thanks to some very fat squirrels, it will never be straight again, but it still functions. So I have now set that pole up in our front yard, under a pair of trees. At the moment I am trying to keep it light, one suet and a small seed feeder. I have also relocated the felt birdhouse to the front yard, and plan to screw a wooden house onto the oak tree, just as soon as I find the time.
The backyard set-up is similar to my previous layout. I have my feeder pole with several feeders, including my finch feeder. Not far from the feeder is my birdbath. My two remaining bird houses, the gourd and the two family wooden house on a pole, have been relocated toward the edge of our property, as far from the house as possible, to make the birds comfortable.
So far, the feathered community seems to appreciate my humble contribution to their diets. The neighbors have an impressive bird feeder and house set-up themselves, so the birds are definitely familiar with the area. While I have not yet had time to sit outside and watch, I have noticed Blue Jays, House Finches, Goldfinches, House Sparrows, Starlings, Grackles (in droves), Robins, Nuthatch and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker. I also saw a House Wren briefly, while I was sitting on the front porch. There is also a large population of gray squirrels, although I haven’t caught any of them climbing up either pole yet, so maybe they are not as evolved as the monkey-squirrels that lived in our previous yard. And of course there are chipmunks.
Beyond the normal feeder customers, this new location seems to have a plethora of furry critters roaming about. As with our old neighborhood, there are plenty of bunnies. We have seen several deer, including a very new fawn, just relaxing under our neighbor’s outside table. We even saw a fox run across the street one evening.
Our closest encounters have been with raccoons. The first raccoon we saw wandered up on our deck like he owned the place. We were sitting out at the time, and I am not sure who was more surprised, him or us! After a minute, he recovered and ran across the deck at record speed, sneaking through the rails of the porch, very elegantly until the moment his butt got stuck. He struggled very ungracefully for a few minutes, tail in the air, before finally wiggling through. After all this, he hid under our deck for about fifteen minutes before resurfacing and sauntering back across the deck, right past us, as if it was the most normal thing to ever happen.
The second raccoon interaction involved our recycling can, one night. Three young raccoons had decided to tip over our recycling to find something tasty. When my husband investigated two ran off, but the third stayed happily inside the overturned can. Once he had joined his partners in crime, we cleaned up the mess and my husband when to see if they were still hanging around in our yard. In fact they had made themselves quite comfortable on our deck, so we went inside and watched them from the window. One was trying to get food out of a condiment packet, another was scratching his/her behind and the third was very interested in our grill, checking out every nook. Eventually they decided they were ready to move on and they headed deeper into our yard and over the fence.
All in all, our new home promises to provide a lot of new material for this blog and I look forward to sharing our new backyard adventures with you.
I have said it before, but I will say it again, juvenile birds are so weird. With both the disheveled appearance of their developing adult plumage and their equally awkward behavior, it is little wonder many people’s first reaction upon seeing a juvenile is to assume the bird is sick.
In my backyard I have become accustom to certain juveniles. House Sparrow juveniles, for example, are almost a constant throughout the summer. However, last summer I received a few visits from a juvenile Northern Cardinal and I must say, seeing it in person made such an impression.
I think part of the shock has to do with my impression of adult Northern Cardinals. An elegant, almost aristocratic bird, the Northern Cardinal never seems to have a feather out of place. Male and female alike seem to treat the feeder and their fellow birds with disinterested disdain.
So perhaps it is the elegance of the adults that created such a strong contrast between them and their gawky juvenile. When it first landed, it made quite an entrance. Instead of a graceful decent, it more or less plopped out of the air. Once on the ground it began to wander. Like most toddlers, its attitude was one of wonder, as it explored everything with great interest and curiosity. Every other bird in the area was of particular interest, no doubt because they might be convinced to feed this pitiful little guy, so he didn’t have to fend for himself.
I say guy, but the sex of my juvenile could not be determined by appearance. Juvenile Northern Cardinals are similar in appearance to a female, but they are a duller brown throughout. The only hints of the Northern Cardinal’s famous red can be seen with some red tinting at the breast and tail. During its first visit it’s plumage looked particularly bedraggled. However, it visited more than once over the course of the summer, so I was able to see the progression from the scruffy youth toward the sophisticated adult. If you think about it, it was looking pretty good, considering that it was born naked except for a few tufts of grayish-brown down.
Baltimore Orioles are one of bird-watching most prized songbirds, beloved for their song and bright, distinctive coloring. Baltimore Orioles are very common throughout New Jersey, though they are less likely to be seen in the Pine Barrens. Besides those birds that decide to reside in the Garden State all summer, the best times to see these beauties is actually in the spring and fall, when their numbers increase with the migration. The earliest sightings are usually mid-April. Typically they have migrated completely by late September, heading south to winter in the much warmer climates provided by Central and South America.
Baltimore Orioles are easy to spot and even easier to identify. As one of the northeast’s only orange birds, they are difficult to confuse with anything else. Both sexes are the same size, growing to be between seven and eight inches. However, it is only in size that the sexes are similar. The male Baltimore Oriole displays his orange coloring on his belly, across his shoulders and the underside of his tail. Though limited to certain areas, the orange appears brighter and more startling because it contrasts so strongly with his black head, back and wings. He has white wing bars and white flashes can be seen on this wings while he is in flight.
The female Baltimore Oriole has more orange plumage than the male, with an orange head. The tint of her orange feathers is slightly duller than her male counterpart, but only just. Only her wings and back are gray-black, or olive with white wing bars. She looks very similar to female Orchard Orioles or Hooded Orioles, but their plumage is more yellow than orange. If you have time to study them beyond the dazzle of their feathers, you will notice that the Baltimore Orioles have dark, penetrating eyes, a pointed gray bill and gray-black legs and feet.
Baltimore Orioles like to live on the edge of deciduous woodlands, and don’t mind being close to human habitation. They choose to build the nests high up in the tallest trees. Their nests are very interesting, being a sock-like sack that dangles down from a branch. They make it by weaving plant fibers together. For images of an Oriole nest being built, visit: https://www.nephotographyguild.com/2016/03/baltimore-oriole-nest/
Once the nest is ready for their four or five blue eggs, the male leaves the female to incubate for twelve to fourteen days. Once the eggs hatch, he returns and they feed the new babies together for the next two weeks. As they grow, the juveniles will take on the plumage of a female, with the males not growing their adult plumage until they are in the second or third year.
A Baltimore Oriole’s diet is widely varied. They eat insects, but also like fruit and nectar. They will come to feeders for fruit, nectar and suet. Jam/jelly feeders is another favorite. They definitely have a sweet tooth. As they grow, the adults will not be shy about bringing their fledglings along to feeders, so as the summer progresses you might have an opportunity to see the whole family.
Found throughout the state of New Jersey in great numbers, it is little wonder that the American Goldfinch was officially declared the New Jersey state bird on June 27, 1935. Not only are they found around the state, many of the Goldfinch stay around all winter. However, in northern New Jersey we usually only see them in spring and summer as many of the state’s population migrate further south with the cold weather, in search of larger sources of food. At one time the population was noticed to decline as the House Sparrow population increased, but today the numbers have stabilized and the species is not considered under threat.
At five inches, the American Goldfinch is an inch smaller than most sparrows. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in color. We all know this iconic bright yellow bird. The male has a black patch at the front of his head, as well as black wings and a tail. The wings have small bars of white, and a small patch of white is sometimes visible on its belly, right where the tail connects to its body. The female is just duller in color all around. The classic example of bird species where the vibrant male plumage is in contrast with a female of mellower coloring. The female’s yellow is just duller, almost grayer than her male counterpart. The black and white of her wings is also a bit more drab and she lacks the black on her head.
The male American Goldfinch does experience one of natures more drastic molts. After the conclusion of the mating season, the males lose their bright luster and appear much more muted, almost indistinguishable from the females. He does not even retain his black forehead plumage. His transformation in early spring, back into the brighter version of himself can sometimes seem even more extreme. During this process the males often look ill or strange, with patches or tufts of white scattered among the brighter yellow feathers.
The American Goldfinch eat a wide variety of seeds, as well as some berries, flowers and the occasional insect. They will visit seed feeders, but if you want to be sure that they find you, you can fill a feeder with exclusively Nyjer seeds. Nyjer attracts finches the same way that catnip calls to cats. It really works. Nyjer seeds come from the African yellow daisy, and they are so appealing to the finches because of their high oil content. Unfortunately, the Nyjer seeds are more expensive than the average backyard bird mix.
If you do succeed to attract New Jersey’s mascot to your feeders, be prepared for some of the most wimpy behavior you have ever seen. Goldfinch are not just flighty or shy, they are the most hesitant bird I have even seen. Often coming to my yard in groups of three to seven, they will slowly hop from branch to lower branch, calling to each other in their high-pitched squeaks. I swear the squeaks have a questioning inflection. “Is it safe?” “Is it safe?” They leap frog their way down the trees until the group finally convinces one bird (often a female, which I find interesting) to go the distance and land on the feeder. Once the guinea pig passes the test, the others will tentatively make their way over, often one at a time. But the slightest motion from an observer, or another bird, and they are all off like a shot, back up to the top of the tree, to start the process all over again.
If you are looking for the American Goldfinch beyond your own backyard, you can frequently find them in fields with high grass and weeds. They are also fond of open woodland. Gardens with lots of sunflower type plants are another good spot to look. Outside of the breeding season, they can be found in groups of up to twenty.
The American Goldfinch is known to be late to nest, waiting until late August or sometimes even in early September before they nest. The females usually build their cup-shaped nest in the fork of a tree branch and, like the hummingbird, they use spider silk and caterpillar webbing on the outside of the nest as binding. Due to their late start, the American Goldfinch only have one brood. Each brood consists of between four to six blue eggs, which the female incubates. The male will return to the nest periodically to feed her, but she sometimes has to call him and beg for him to return. Once the eggs hatch, the male assists with the feeding of the young. From year to year they will select different mates and are not monogamous.
The name Rose-Breasted Grosbeak doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But it is fairly logical. Grosbeak, a name applied to a group of birds, refers to their larger, seed crushing bill. The Rose-Breasted refers to the red patch that can be seen on the chest of the males.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a very common resident of northern New Jersey in the summers. I have never seen a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak in New Jersey myself, probably because they are much less common in urban and populated areas. But I have been lucky enough to observe them regularly in New York. If you are looking for them in New Jersey, they begin to arrive in late April, with the population peaking by the middle of May. They can be seen throughout the southern portion of the state as they start to migrate south in September.
Seven or eight inches in size, making it just a bit smaller than a Cardinal, the male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is a black and white bird with a red patch on his throat and upper chest. His head, back and wings are black, with white stripes on his wings being the only exception. Most of his belly, below his rosy red patch, is white, with small black speckles. The female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak only resembles her mate in size. Being mostly brown and white with a white stripe along her eyes. With only a quick glance, the female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak can be misidentified as a sparrow, some varieties of female finches or sometimes a female Red-Winged Blackbird.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak likes open deciduous forests, but whether in the forest or your own backyard, you might easily mistake the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak’s whistling song with that of an American Robin. Both the males and the females sing, but the males are louder and easier to hear. You can hear for yourself at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Rose-breasted_Grosbeak/sounds The male is known to sing while he incubates the nest, as well as using his song to attract a mate and call to his fellow Grosbeaks.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks nest in a cup style nest, built of loose twigs, which they build together. Each breeding season they have either one or two broods of 3-5 eggs. Their eggs are blue-green with brown markings, another similarity to the American Robin. The pair incubate and feed their young together, the female only leaving the first nest and fledgelings to the male if they plan to have a second brood.
While their “Grosbeaks” allow them to crush seeds, the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks have a varied diet. They eat fruit and insects, as well as seeds. They have even been known to eat flowers. They glean from the ground and by hover, but the females are more likely to hover searching for food than their mates. And they will happily visit feeders, with very little sign of shyness or hesitation.
There is just something about the color yellow. While some birds carry their yellow plumage more subtly than others, it never fails to draw attention. I thought it might be fun to highlight some of our yellow feathered friends, and how they manage to pull off such a bold and outspoken color.
Of course when you talk about yellow birds, it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge one of the most famous yellow birds in history. Yup, you guessed it, Big Bird. At eight feet, two inches I think it is safe to say that Big Bird is the largest yellow bird the world will ever see. Since 1969 he has resided on Seasame Street, educating generations of children. However, as we are unlikely to ever see Big Bird or his like on a hike in the woods (a mixed blessing really) I think we will switch our focus to some of his smaller yellow contemporaries.
Big Bird and a few other species aside, most birds seem to feel that a touch of yellow is bold enough to draw attention to them, without causing them to stand out too much. What they really want is for the yellow to attract mates, without also attracting predators. And in some cases I think they might have the right idea with their approach. In the case of yellow, less is often more.
We take as our first example of subtle yellow, the Cedar Waxwing. Mostly a dull brown-gray, the Waxwing’s yellow can be seen in two places. The downy feathers of its belly have a yellow tint to them, revealed only to those who have the advantage of seeing it from the ground. The second splash of yellow that the Cedar Waxwing displays is a bit bolder, and can be found on the very tip of its tail, a feature it has in common with the slightly larger Bohemian Waxwing. Together, and compared to the dull coloring of the rest of his plumage, these two splashes of yellow do attract the eye.
Our next bird uses yellow similarly to the Cedar Waxwing, displaying it on its belly. The Great-Crested Flycatcher is not the only flycatcher with a yellow belly. However, it has the brightest yellow belly of all its fellow flycatchers. Despite that statement, you can see from the photo that its downy belly could still be considered light or dull yellow when compared to many of the other birds that sport yellow plumage.
Though much smaller than both the Cedar Waxwing and the Great-Crested Flycatcher, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet shares their fairly flat brown-gray coloring. The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet displays its yellow it is a bolder spot then its belly. Both the male and the female have a series of bars and stripes of both white and yellow on the tips of its wing and tail feathers. While stationary this yellow may not attract too much attention, but when in motion, the yellow and white stripes draw the eye, almost as boldly as racing stripes on a race car.
The White-Throated Sparrow is probably is probably the most common backyard bird to display the power of the subtle use of yellow. With two dashes of yellow, over the top of each eye, this Sparrow is immediately distinguishable from any other sparrows that might be at your feeders. I am not sure if it is the placement of the yellow, so close to the white strip or if it is the contrast of the yellow against a relatively dark brown head and body. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But there is no denying, the minute a White-Throated Sparrow is on the scene, you can’t help but notice it.
The Common Yellowthroat displays its yellow a bit more openly. While the throats of both sexes of the Common Yellowthroat are the brightest yellow plumage found on their bodies, their brown-gray back feathers do have a yellowish tint if seen in the right light. I personally think the male’s yellow seems a bit brighter than his mate, but that could be because of the contrast between the yellow and the black mask across his face. The female’s face, in comparison, is the same brown-gray of its body, and therefore the combination provides less of an impact.
Yellow plumage is a very common feature of many of North America’s many warblers. As with other bird varieties, we find that some warblers use yellow more sparingly than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler provides a good example of subdued yellow plumage on a warbler. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler sports bright yellow splashes in a few key areas, which contrast with the gray, white and black of the rest of its plumage. As his name clearly indicates, one of those three splashes is located on its “rump.” Rump in this case refers to its back, where its tail attaches to its body. Besides its backside, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler also has a flash of yellow on either side of its breast, near where its wings tuck into its body. The third yellow highlight is a stripe going down the center of its head.
When observed alone, the yellow of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler might not seem all that understated. But compare him to the male Palm Warbler or the Yellow Warbler, and suddenly you will understand what I mean by understated. While the Palm Warbler (left) is not completely yellow, he may as well be. While his wings, tail and back are a brownish-green or olive, his chest immediately draws your eye with its vivid yellow coloring. The Yellow Warbler (right) can’t even pretend. While it does have black wing bars and brown stripes running down its belly, the Yellow Warbler is everything its name implies, yellow. After a quick look at the warbler section of any North American bird book, you will see that I am not kidding when I say that these are just two examples of mostly yellow warblers. I counted about fourteen, but you could easily find more. It all depends on where you draw the line between yellow and yellow highlights.
Of course, having talked about all of these yellow birds, many of my readers are probably wondering how I could be so remiss as to omit the bright yellow of the Goldfinch, New Jersey’s state bird. However, rather than omit it, I was saving the best for last. The Goldfinch is probably one of the first birds that come to mind when a bird watcher is asked to name a yellow bird. Despite its name, the Goldfinch is not a rich gold color, but rather a bright and bold yellow. The males sport a black cap on their heads, and both sexes also display black wings with a white band. As is the case with so many bird species, the male Goldfinch tends to be the brighter of the two sexes, but the females are still pretty bright, and only seem dull when they are directly compared to the males.
I thought I would dedicate today’s post to woodpeckers. I do not intend to focus on just one species of woodpeckers, but actually look at how to differentiate common in New Jersey woodpeckers from one another. According to Birds of New Jersey: A Field Guide, there are six woodpecker species that are commonly found in the State of New Jersey: the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Hairy Woodpecker, the Downy Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker. I would add the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a common winter resident of New Jersey. These are the seven woodpeckers that you are most likely to encounter in New Jersey.
I am not saying that you will never see another species of woodpecker in the state. As with any bird species, there are anomalies due to weather conditions, wind currents, etc. which take a bird from its normal pattern. There have been isolated sightings of uncommon woodpeckers within New Jersey, including a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, sighted in Hoboken around 1860 and an American Three-Toed Woodpecker, seen in West Englewood in 1918. Indeed, there have been sixteen sightings of the Black-Backed Woodpecker in New Jersey, occurring in various counties, north and south. Although, it must be pointed out that several of those sightings were of the same bird, by different observers.
I must start my descriptions by clarifying that I have not seen all seven of these woodpeckers personally. I have never seen a Pileated Woodpecker. Therefore with this species, I will rely on my trusty field guides. The key distinguishing feature of the Pileated Woodpecker is its size. They measure about sixteen or seventeen inches, making them not just New Jersey’s, but also North America’s largest woodpecker. The only other woodpecker to come close is the Northern Flicker, measuring between twelve and thirteen inches. For comparison, most of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post measure about nine inches. The physical appearance of the Pileated Woodpecker is also distinct. Most of their bodies are black, with white and red markings on their head. The red is very prominent, creating a bright crest across the top of the bird’s head. The crest also gives the Pileated Woodpecker’s head a triangular appearance. Despite their size, the Pileated Woodpecker is relatively shy and tends to choose habitats that include large woodlands, which may be why I have never encountered one in the flesh. In New Jersey they tend to concentrate in the northern part of the state, especially toward the west and along the border with Pennsylvania. Being such a large bird, their presence in trees is much more obvious than some of their fellow woodpeckers, as they make very large oval holes in which to nest. To get a look at the Pileated Woodpecker, I suggest you visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/id
The Red-Headed Woodpecker is probably the closest in appearance to the Pileated Woodpecker, but that really is not saying much. The similarity arises because the Red-Headed Woodpecker also has a mostly black back. However, the Red- Headed Woodpecker is both much smaller, measuring about nine inches, but he also has a round head, without even the hint of a crest. The Red-Headed Woodpecker also is not nearly as black as the Pileated Woodpecker. Despite his black wings, his snow white belly and wing tips are very prominent. Of course, as you can probably guess from its name, the Red-Headed Woodpecker’s most distinct feature is its completely red head. It almost appears as if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. The Red-Headed Woodpecker’s bill is not as good at excavating holes in trees as its fellow woodpeckers, so it is more likely to be found in dead or decaying branches. If it can, it will sometimes just take over the abandoned nest of one of its fellow woodpeckers. Because if the need for decaying trees, the Red-Headed Woodpecker tends to be seen on the edges of forest or in more open woodland than the Pileated Woodpecker. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is another bird I haven’t seen many of. The pictures included here are of Red-Headed Woodpeckers I spotted in Maryland, as I have never been lucky enough to see any in New Jersey, despite their presence. For better photos you can visit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/id
In my opinion the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is most often confused with the Red-Headed Woodpecker because it too has a red head. Unlike the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the red of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is not nearly as prominent. Imagine a mohawk or mullet and you will start to get the idea. The red plumage starts at the forehead and goes across the top of the head, between the eyes, and terminates at the back of the neck. The shade of red is also different. It is a brighter, lighter red, as compared to the almost blood red shade found on the Red-Headed Woodpecker. Another difference, which I think is easily the most identifiable feature of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker, is the pattern of black and white on its wings. While other woodpeckers have spots or speckles, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker has what can only be described as zigzags or stripes. One guide calls it “Zebra-backed.” When its wings are at rest, the white sections of their plumage connect to form lines rather than a random pattern. In person it is quite dazzling. The one thing that you will probably not notice about the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is his “red” belly. I think the people who give birds their common names were reaching a bit with this one! The Red-Bellied Woodpecker has a stripe of colored feathers in the middle of its belly, which can be seen against the rest of its white belly if you look very closely. More tan than red, it sometimes has a tinge of rust color to it. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is common throughout woodland habitats and can be seen in New Jersey year-round. Not only is it a resident bird, but the Red-Bellied Woodpecker will often return to the same tree year after year, creating a new nest hole below the nest from the previous year. Not great news for the tree, but a nice way to keep track of a particular breeding pair.
Hairy Woodpeckers (above), and Downy Woodpeckers (below) represent the hardest two woodpeckers to distinguish, from each other. They both appear almost identical, especially at a quick glance. Both have black wings, with white splotches and a white stripe down the middle. Their bellies, also white, are often very fluffy or downy looking. Their heads, like several other woodpeckers, have stripes of white and black. The largest bands of black being across their eyes, and over the top of the their heads, from their beak to the nape of their necks. The males of both species sport a small, bright red patch on the back of their heads. So how does one tell these two apart? The honest answer is that sometimes it is very difficult to do so. Looking back at photos for this article, I sometimes struggled to distinguish between them. It is even more difficult as the Hairy Woodpeckers send their smaller fledglings out into the world, who are sometimes about the same size as an adult Downy Woodpecker.
But there are a few characteristics that you might be able to use, if the bird will sit still long enough, or if you have a photograph to examine. The first, and most obvious is their size. The Hairy Woodpecker is similar in size to many of the other woodpeckers discussed in this post, usually measuring about nine inches. The adult Downy Woodpecker is more petite, growing to about six inches, about the same size as a House Sparrow. The Downy Woodpecker also has black spots along the side of its tail, something the Hairy Woodpecker does not have. The beak of the Hairy Woodpecker is also longer than that of the Downy Woodpecker.
As I mentioned above, I am including the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker because it is commonly found throughout the state during the winter months. Arguably the winter is the best time of year to look for woodpeckers, when the leaves are off the trees and visibility in the forest is much better. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has many features similar to one or the other of its fellow woodpeckers, however the combination of all of these features makes its appearance rather unique. Smaller than the Pileated Woodpecker, it shares the red crest. On closer inspection, the red crest of the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker is not as long as that of the Pileated. Besides the crest, their faces are very similar with a mix of black and white lines running across the face from the beak to the back of the head. But at the neck, the similarities to the Pileated Woodpecker end. The back and wings are much more like those of the Hairy or Downy Woodpeckers, black with speckles of white. Here too there is some slight differences. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers both have black wings with distinct white splotches, well defined. Almost as it someone had taken a paintbrush, pressed down and then lifted the brush straight off its back. The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker’s back is much more mixed and blurred. More like someone ran a white dry-brush over the top of its black back. The reverse effect seems to be the case for its belly, mostly white, but for a smudging of black. A resident of deciduous forests, the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker can be found in New Jersey roughly between October and April. You need to keep your eyes peeled for them though, they are fairly quiet and often manage to avoid detection. The few photos I am sharing here are of the only Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker that I have ever seen, spotted in early spring on one of the wooded trails at Garret Mountain Reservation.
The Northern Flicker is probably most different from all other woodpeckers. Some field guides do not even group the Northern Flicker with the other woodpeckers. The second largest of the woodpeckers who call New Jersey home, the Northern Flicker is colored very differently from it fellows. A brown or dark tan body contrasts with the white and black of the others. The Northern Flicker has both round, black spots on its belly and black splotches (irregular in shape) on its back. The black splotches on the wings form a dizzying pattern similar to that found on the Red-Bellied Woodpecker’s wings. There is also a black section on the bird’s breast, almost like a necklace. The Northern Flicker’s head and face are fairly plain, having some gray on the top of its head, a small splash of red at the nape of the neck and, in the case of the males, a black, triangular “mustache” on either cheek. However, appearances are not the only way that one can easily distinguish the Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers. The Northern Flicker is also the only woodpecker that can be seen feeding from the ground regularly. This is because the Northern Flicker likes to eat ants and beetles, rather than the insects more commonly found in trees. So they spend a lot of time wandering slowly on their feet, along the ground searching for ant holes.
While I have been spending all this time trying to point out the differences between these woodpeckers, they do have a lot of obvious similarities. Most of these woodpeckers, with the exception of the Northern Flicker and probably the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, will visit a suet feeder. Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers are all commonly seen at my feeders. In fact, I have had a Red-Bellied Woodpecker get into my seed feeders as well on several occasions. While they may differ on which bugs and insects they prefer, they all have long barbed tongues, which help them to get into tiny spaces and pull out insects. They also all nest in tree cavities, of varying sizes. So next time you hear that distinct “knock, knock, knock” of a woodpecker on a tree, take a look up and try to see if you can figure out which kind of woodpecker is making all the racket!