(HOST) Birds of all kinds are winging south now, and commentator Ted Levin has been observing their passage.
(LEVIN) Days of rain and gray skies make the colors of yellow-
shafted flickers appear more intense as they rise from mats of wet leaves, and bolt from one side of our road to the other, screaming loudly as though deeply disturbed.
Yesterday I flushed a group of four as I ran up Five Corners Road and later more than a dozen as I drove back down – more flickers than I would ever hope to see on a summer afternoon.
The third largest species of woodpecker in North America, the flicker is both common and gorgeous, a rare blend of bold and subtle markings that make the bird difficult to spot when motionless, eye-catching when flying: it’s back is black-bars over muted brown; it’s breast dark spots against the palest shade of yellow, what the photographer calls one stop overexposed; a red chevron on the head, a thick black chevron on the chest, and a black, Salvador Dali mustache on males only; its yolk-yellow under wings and large white rump patch flash and shine particularly on dismal days. The wings are broad, the tail long, and the black bill slightly curved. The flicker’s voice is loud and repetitive, a ringing wika-wika-wika-wika.
A monograph written in 1900 listed no less than 132 common names – yellow hammer, harry-wicket, and wake-up to mention a few – testaments to both the bird’s wide range and its local familiarity. Several others, including “pigeon woodpecker” and “partridge woodpecker” refer to a time long ago when flickers were considered game birds and lay along side ducks and quail in east coast markets. Flickers must have been easy to shoot for they feed in the open on the ground, often in front yards, gorging on ants – a habit that lead John Burroughs to note that a flicker is “not quite satisfied with being a woodpecker.” Their courtship displays are conspicuous and comical – bobbing, weaving, swaying, dancing, nodding, bowing – and often performed face to face.
When flickers migrate their flocks pileup along the coast. Places like Fire Island, favored today by birders, were once gunning hot spots where flickers were shot by the thousands.
One autumn dawn, nearly thirty years ago, I stood on a sand dune in front of the Fire Island lighthouse. The sky was twilit, the sun not yet above the horizon. Flickers were everywhere. On the sand. In the road. In the twisted pines. And birds continued to ply westward for several more hours, loose, scattered flocks flying low over the dunes or zipping into the seaside neighborhood. Whenever a migrating peregrine or merlin swooped in, scores of flickers exploded into flight like leaves caught in the wind. From time to time a peregrine made a kill, a limp flicker in its talons, an ephemeral rain of feathers in its wake. I estimated more than ten thousand flickers passed me that morning.
The flickers that graced the shoulders of the drizzly dirt road in Thetford Center are also bound for the Eastern seaboard, where they’ll gather in astonishing numbers on their migration south, a feast for both the birder and the falcon.
This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.
Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.