ID Challenge: Downy and Hairy Woodpecker

No matter what skill level birder you are, it’s fairly easy to tell a woodpecker from other birds. The obvious distinguishing characteristic of course is behavior. Other than nuthatches and creepers, few other birds cling to tree bark and probe for insects. Fewer still actually drill for those insects. Another handy characteristic is that most North American woodpeckers are some combination of black and white with maybe a little bit of red thrown in to spice things up.

Immature male mountain type Hairy Woodpecker. Note the red crown rather than red nape, which is characteristic of an immature bird. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The problem often comes when you try to tell different woodpeckers apart. Suddenly that black and white coloring isn’t so distinctive! A classic id challenge is distinguishing between the Downy (Picoides pubescens) and Hairy (Leuconotopicus villosus) Woodpeckers.

Female Downy Woodpecker on plum tree. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Both species are black and white with more white speckling on Eastern birds than those found in the mountains. Males of both species also have red patches on the nape of the neck. So how can you tell the difference? Well, one way is that, while both are found in Colorado, they tend to inhabit different ecosystems. While I occasionally see a Downy Woodpecker pecking away at the dead plum tree in my backyard, I’ll almost certainly never see a Hairy Woodpecker out there. That’s because Downy Woodpeckers seem to prefer more open stands of deciduous trees and riparian areas. Hairy Woodpeckers, by contrast, are more partial to deeper forest, something my very suburban neighborhood just can’t provide. They’ll also nest in areas with more coniferous trees.

There are also some differences in size between the two. Just like with the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, if the two species are right next to each other (the Downy is smaller), you’re golden, but since that rarely happens, bill size is the best field mark. The Downy Woodpecker’s bill is tiny, much smaller than the width of the head when viewing the bird in profile. The Hairy Woodpecker’s bill is more robust and is almost the same length as the width of the bird’s head.

Jeff Birek of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding a female Downy Woodpecker at Poudre Riverfest 2014 in Fort Collins, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.

If you’re still confused, there’s another characteristic the Downy Woodpecker has that the Hairy doesn’t, but you’ll have to have a great view of the bird in question’s tail feathers. The Downy typically has little black spots on its outer white tail feathers. The Hairy’s outer tail feathers are completely white.

And there you have it. With the leaves off the trees, now is a great time to go looking for Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, which are non-migratory, so why not go on a little field trip to test out your new skills?


Living Ornaments

The Front Range has just gotten its first snow of the season, the bright Autumn leaves have fallen, and the flowers have dried up and gone to seed. Consequently, it feels as if most of the color has been leached from the landscape. It sure is looking pretty brown and grey these days. Looking at the nearest pond or lake, however, shows that some animals haven’t gotten the memo about the new dress code.

A male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A male Wood Duck in eclipse plumage at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Whether passing through or staying the Winter, this is the time to see ducks in Colorado. For most ducks, and a lot of other waterfowl too, Autumn signals the very beginning of the breeding season. That means it’s time for the males (known as drakes) to impress the ladies (hens) again. Kind of like bumming around in your favorite, worn-out old sweatpants before changing into nice clothes for a date, drakes look drab in the Summer when breeding season is over. This drab plumage is called their “eclipse” plumage. Because ducks molt their feathers all at once and are flightless for a period of time while they do it, this eclipse plumage may help camouflage them from predators while they’re vulnerable.

A male Bufflehead at Belmar Park in Lakewood, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A male Bufflehead at Belmar Park in Lakewood, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In Fall, the drakes regrow those beautiful jewel-like feathers that make them so striking. Have you ever noticed how a Mallard duck’s head looks black in some lights, but a gorgeous emerald in others, sometimes even blue? Or how a Bufflehead’s can look as black as ink or shimmer with purple and green tones like an oil slick? This irridescence is due not because the feathers are actually green or purple, but because of the structure of the feather itself. The feathers are composed of tiny little barbs that work to scatter rays of light like a prism. Different feathers have different structural combinations that reflect different colors. Almost all blue and green colors in birds are the result of this phenomenon.

Other ducks, like the Canvasback and the aptly named Redhead, have red heads that are due to those feathers containing pigments called carotenoids. Sunlight contains all colors, but when it shines on a Canvasback’s head, all colors in the light are absorbed except for the red, which is reflected. That means the feather is always red, no matter what the light is like. This is the same thing that makes an American Goldfinch yellow.

Soaring Ring-billed Gull. Note the black wing tips. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Soaring Ring-billed Gull. Note the black wing tips. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The drab brown of the hen is also due to pigmented color. Just like the pigment melanin influences the color of your skin and whether and how much you tan, melanin in a feather is responsible for brown and black colors. The more melanin a feather has, the darker it is and also the stronger it is. That’s why most birds that fly for long distances, including gulls and the otherwise entirely white Snow Goose, have black wing tips.

If the end of Daylight Savings is getting you down and you’re starting to feel the Winter doldrums, it might help to take a trip to your nearest park. These living ornaments don’t have to be taken down and boxed up when the holidays are over.

Spotlight on Parks: Cherry Creek State Park

The high-pitched whine of a model airplane zipping through the air mingles with the raucous cries of gulls and the roar of power boats. You’re at Cherry Creek State Park, and it’s the place to to be on a warm, late autumn day. Located in Aurora not far from the hustle and bustle of downtown Denver, Cherry Creek is an oasis in the midst of the urban jungle that sees more than 1 million visitors every year.

A cormorant dries itself off at the Cherry Creek State Park marina. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A cormorant dries itself off at the Cherry Creek State Park marina. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In 1950, Cherry Creek dam was built to prevent flooding in Denver.  Shortly after in 1959, the area became part of the Colorado Parks system. Today, Cherry Creek consists of 4,200 acres of parkland, including an 850 acre lake (really a man-made reservoir).

The reservoir is the main draw of the park and on my trip I saw plenty of people enjoying it. From sailboats to paddleboards to kayaks to jet skis, everyone was enjoying the water in their own way. And so were the birds. Popping up in among the flotillas of American Coots were Pied-billed Grebes and the occasional duck. I even saw 3 loons, uncommon visitors to Colorado, bobbing up and down amid the Ring-billed, Herring, and California Gulls.

Abutting the reservoir is a wetland preserve. The preserve is off-limits to biking, pets, and horses, but hikers are welcome. As I dodged slick muddy patches and branches I kept my eyes open for small mammals, but only the occasional squirrel poked its head out to stare at me. More birds were evident though, including an unexpected Common Redpoll singing from the top of a cottonwood tree. In the spring I’m sure the wetland is alive with the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and nesting waterfowl and the paddling of industrious beaver. I did see a few gnawed trees that indicated the latter’s presence.

View of Cherry Creek Reservoir from the wetland. Photo by Jamie Simo.
View of Cherry Creek Reservoir from the wetland. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Farther out from the reservoir is prairie and, though I didn’t explore it, prairie dogs are abundant there. I saw them scurrying and heard them yipping as I drove into the park. I can only imagine there must be coyote and fox skulking around too with so much food available.

In addition to boating and wildlife viewing, the park is known for its model airplane field and its shooting range. Fishing, biking, horseback riding, camping, and picnicking are also popular activities as well as cross-country skiing in the winter months. There’s even a sandy beach for swimming in the summer.

Like all Colorado State Parks, the annual State Parks pass includes access to Cherry Creek. However, Cherry Creek also requires a $3 additional Basin sticker to help pay for water cleanup and reservoir maintenance. Both stickers can be purchased online at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. You can also pay $9 for a day pass. Additional fees are required for camping, shooting or boating.

A female Mallard glides along near the marina. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A female Mallard glides along near the marina. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Cherry Creek really is a premier destination to get away from it all and this just may be one of the best times of year to see it. According to the park’s brochure, it can get crowded on summer weekends and sometimes there may be a wait to park due to a cap on the number of vehicles and boats in the park at one time. So come visit Cherry Creek this fall while the crowds are out.