Drive-by Birding

What a great photo of a northern flicker (though you can't see the yellow)! Note the curved bill, useful for scooping up insects. Photo courtesy of Birds & Blooms/Jerry Acton.

Once you get interested in birds, you notice them anywhere, anytime. Even from a car window. We took an early-autumn drive one nice afternoon recently, heading into the Adirondacks to a favorite lunch spot. I got to be the passenger and enjoyed gazing out the open window at the arching blue sky and the fall foliage, just turning vivid hues.

Passing swamps, it was easy to spot the occasional red-winged blackbird. Overhead, hawks circled. A chevron of geese was heading south. Occasionally, as we passed, we’d flush out a single, medium-size bird, which leapt up off the ground, startled, to take wing. What was he doing? Rooting around in the brush and dirt for bugs? Probably. After about the third or fourth one, I exclaimed, “What IS that bird?!”

Without a Sibley or Peterson guide in the car, nor a resident expert to ask, nor a camera or binoculars on hand, we resolved to observe it as carefully as we could and look it up later at home. Each one we drove past, we noted or confirmed from earlier sightings the following: medium size (definitely bigger than a sparrow or warbler, that is), some black spots, yellow under the wings and tail, a white flash on the rump, and an unusual, slightly hooked beak. From the car, it was not possible to really see the eyes well, or hear the call or song, which might’ve helped. Because habitat might help identify it, we observed that, too: edge of road, margins of woods. Near water? Sometimes.

Well. Back at home with the bird books, identifying our new friend wasn’t so easy. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack! Resorting to the computer and googling “yellow wings birds” or “Adirondacks yellow birds” was also looking for a needle in a haystack. Maybe a flycatcher? Nope. Yellow tanager? Wrong part of the world. To narrow it down, I decided to ask someone who would know, a fellow whose photos of birds I have admired in Adirondack Life magazine. I found his email address and wrote. Here’s his reply:

“Time of year? On the ground?  If on ground and in Sept, probably migrating northern flickers.”

I looked it up. Bingo!

His reply warmed my heart. I love expert birders!

Learn more from the helpful Birds & Blooms library (and see a nice photo of a female!) here.

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