Christmas Week Birds

To be standing together in a frosty field, looking up into the sky, marveling at birds and reveling in the natural world around us, was a simple miracle. And I wondered why we were so rarely able to appreciate it.

~Lynn Thomson

While visiting Melissa’s family in Richmond, I often take walks around a section of shoreline of Swift Creek Reservoir adjacent to where they live. I am always amazed at the abundance and diversity of birds in a relatively narrow natural shoreline designated as a Resource Protection Area in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Below are some of the birds spotted on a few walks this week…

Eastern bluebird

Eastern bluebird (click photos to enlarge)

There are at least 15 to 20 bluebirds foraging through the natural area, often returning to a few American holly trees to glean what must be the last few berries. They also spend a lot of time sitting and watching, then dropping down to the ground like small hawks, picking up unseen morsels (maybe some insects moving about in a sunny spot).

Yellow-rumped warbler preening

Yellow-rumped warbler preening

Numerous small birds move through the woods, often together in a mixed feeding flock. In addition to yellow-rumps, I saw ruby-crowned kinglets, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and American goldfinches.

Northern flicker

Northern flicker female


It was the woodpeckers that really had my attention in one particular patch of woods. There was a downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpeckers, and several Northern flickers. I watched one female flicker (she lacks the black mustache of a male) repeatedly poking her bill into a small knothole on a tree. Others were doing what flickers often do, hopping around on the ground probing for one of their favorite foods – ants.

Northern flicker from behind

Northern flicker – back view

Flickers really are beautiful birds when you get a chance to study their varied plumage. The red heart-shaped patch on the back of the head is particularly pleasing. Many of the small black dots on the breast are also heart-shaped. Perhaps a bird better suited for Valentine’s Day than Christmas.

Red-headed woodpecker mature male

Red-headed woodpecker adult

The highlight of my walks was the chance to watch several red-headed woodpeckers forage, chatter, and chase one another. I don’t see them often where I live, as they seem to prefer places with lots of standing dead trees in relatively open habitat, like beaver swamps. They are one of noisier woodpeckers, chattering frequently, allowing me to find them easier than many other species. Adult males and females look alike, with bright red heads and a boldly patterned black and white body.

Red-headed woodpecker imm male

Immature red-headed woodpecker

Juveniles differ in having a brownish or splotchy red/brown head. This one had a small territory amounting to a couple of hundred feet of shoreline containing a narrow strip of trees. It kept going back to one dead snag, so I finally worked my way over to where I could see what it was doing…

Red-headed woodpecker with acorn

Red-headed woodpecker preparing to fly off with acorn

It was digging out acorns that it presumably had stashed in the loose bark of the snag. Red-headed woodpeckers are one of the few species of woodpecker that regularly cache food. It is also considered our most omnivorous woodpecker with a diet that includes seeds and nuts, insects, berries and fruits, birds eggs and nestlings, and even mice.

Double-crested cormorant fly-by

Double-crested cormorant

The most noticeable birds along the reservoir were the hundreds of double-crested cormorants that flew in and out every afternoon and morning. I stood at the edge of the water and watched them fly by me, turn back into the wind and land, either on the lake, or in the trees on an island a few hundred yards away.

Cormorants in tree

Cormorant roost

The cormorants have used this island as an evening roost for at least the past few years. They make a lot of noise at the roost – various squawks and grunts, plus a lot of splashing and washing in the water near the island. A fleet of ring-billed gulls swam nearby, as well as several species of waterfowl including pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, buffleheads, mallards, hooded mergansers, Canada geese, and a few ring-necked ducks.

Ring-necked duck

Ring-necked duck drake

I always enjoy seeing ring-necked ducks with their distinctive ringed bill and bold color pattern (that head can be quite purplish in the right light). Surely, the bearer of one of the least descriptive common names for a bird, the ring-necked duck is known to hunters by the much more reasonable common name of ringbill. There has even been a recent attempt, perhaps tongue in beak, to rename this beautiful duck to more accurately reflect its appearance (see The actual ring on the neck is a narrow chestnut brown band separating the dark head color from the dark breast feathers in the males only. Not a very useful field mark at all.

All of these birds are all a delight to see on a cold winter morning (especially the two immature bald eagles that sailed by). So, this holiday season, be sure to get outside and give yourself the gift of “…marveling at birds and reveling in the natural world around us”.