Northern flicker - June 6 / Day 157

This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.

Flicker in foreground; flying sparrow in background

After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.

Flicker in foreground; mourning doves in background

Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.


After a rainy weekend, it feels good to walk umbrella-free again. Today at Keene State, I had time for only a short lunch-hour spin around campus, but the natural Powers-That-Be packed a lot of sightings into that short time span.

Milkweed pods

After crossing the Ashuelot River and skirting the soccer field next to the tennis courts, I saw a pileated woodpecker flap across the overcast sky. Although this isn’t the first time I’ve seen pileateds zooming out of the woods along the Ashuelot, their sudden appearance always startles me. Pileateds are the size of crows, but their flight is flappier, their wings showing big white patches and their crested heads making their necks look scrawny and under-sized, like a bad drawing of a bird. No matter how many times I see pileated woodpeckers fly, they never look the way I’d remembered them: they always look shocking and unimaginable, a prototype of a bird still under design.

After seeing an unplanned pileated, I could have returned, satisfied, to my office and my afternoon classes, but the natural Powers-That-Be weren’t done with me yet. Walking the rail-trail that borders campus, I heard a hidden downy woodpecker calling from a tree, and then a distant pileated: the one I’d just seen? Pausing to look for a chipmunk I’d heard chirping from the underbrush, I startled a big brownish bird from a low branch. Wood duck? Grouse? My brain flipped through memorized mug shots of the Usual Subjects: what kind of big brownish bird would flush from a low branch in a scrubby patch of woods?

Railtrail bridge

It was, I discovered, a Cooper’s hawk I’d flushed from hunting some low-lying prey: it perched on someone’s backyard branch just long enough for me to identify it, naked-eyed, before it zoomed off to some other prey. My Tuesdays are packed with teaching and other tasks, so it’s a welcome relief to have a lunch-hour walk punctuated by woodpeckers and hawks, creatures whose to-do’s are refreshingly different from my own.