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Northland Nature: A surprise at the bird feeder

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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A flicker perched on a tree; note the yellow shafts of the tail feathers and red and black on the head. Contributed / Mark Sparky Stensaas
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Like many in the Northland, I maintain bird feeders near the house for winter. From about mid-October until April, not a day goes by that we don’t have avian visitors come by for a meal. Sunflower and thistle seeds along with suet are kept available. I try to put out fresh food each day. And the local birds respond by feeding here regularly.

Last fall, some of the arrivals were migrants, but now in winter, they have settled into the regulars; here every day. (During unusually mild times, they are less likely to arrive; apparently finding meals on their own elsewhere.) Each day, I see black-capped chickadees, white and red breasted nuthatches, downy, hairy, red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays. Often a half dozen to a dozen turkeys walk out of the woods to dine at the feeders as well. Though the chickadees may be as many as ten, the other birds are usually in pairs.

I find that watching birds on winter days is not boring. They adapt to the weather conditions with fluffed feathers or eating more. Chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays go for the seeds while woodpeckers devour suet; often with the help of chickadees and nuthatches. This animal fat is high in energy that is needed to cope with the cold. The birds are a delight to watch and though they do not really need our handouts, we might need them through the winter.

I have seen various finches; pine grosbeaks, pine siskins and redpolls in the region and pileated woodpeckers call in the nearby woods often, but they have not yet chosen to come by our feeders. I hoping that will change now in January.

Nearly every year, especially in December, we have a visit from some unusual bird at the feeder; normally lasting only a short time, but still arriving. A few years ago, we watched as a house finch and a starling showed up during a snowstorm. Another time, it was a cardinal. None stayed very long. These birds are common at some bird feeders in the area, they are not present at ours. Two years ago, a varied thrush; a relative of the robin, a bird more common in the Pacific Northwest, came to the feeding site, again for only a day. And recently, we were surprised to see a flicker joining others at the feeder.

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Flickers are a species of woodpecker. Larger than the three kinds that have been at the feeder lately, they reach about one foot long. While the other woodpeckers are mostly black and white, flickers are largely brown with black spots on the undersides. Red markings on the head, often with a black “mustache” makes for an interesting appearance. Two other colors of note help to recognize the bird. Feathers have yellow shafts and when wings or tail are spread, this color is easy to see. When in flight, a white patch on the rump shows up.

Flickers are a common resident of the northland in summer. Being as large as they are, we see them regularly. Traveling in small groups that often go to the ground, flickers are easy to see in fall migration; especially in September. A few may be seen in later months, but in December at our latitude, they are rare. Like the other unexpected bird sights, this one did not persist.

The flicker and the other feeder surprises, despite their short show, still add much to feeder watching. We have plenty of winter to go; and lots more to see at feeders in coming weeks.

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Larry Weber
Larry Weber

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