Downy Détente

April 6, 2021 ~ My husband and I agreed to celebrate our anniversary with a trip to Brazos Bend State Park. He took his mountain bike, and I took my camera, both of us looking forward to a long stretch in the park. We had brilliant sunshine, and the air was fresh and warm; the high of the day would reach 80F. Ahhh.

Spring wildflowers are blooming in the park, including the pale pink Evening Primrose and yellow Texas False Dandelion – Pyrrhopappus paucifloruspale (whoever thought up that name wasn’t given enough homework as a child!) seen in my grinning Alligator photo. On this day, I also saw blue Hairy Beardtongue Penstemon out in the meadow, bright pink Oxalis Articulata in the shade under the oak trees, tiny purple Deer Pea Vetch, and these beautiful Blue-eyed Grass, happy in the mowed teardrop drive at 40-Acre Lake, with a Live Oak in the background.

Blue-eyed Grass, Brazos Bend State Park, cellphone photo
Drowsy White Ibis
1/3200 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)

I took a short detour onto Hoot’s Hollow trail, to see if I could get a closer view of the rookery just north of 40-Acre Lake. The only bird I saw was this White Ibis half-asleep behind a gauzy curtain of Spanish Moss. His lores and facial skin, the skin under his chin, and his legs, are brilliant scarlet while he is in breeding plumage (and this could be a female, there are no differences in markings, only in size). He presented the perfect image of tranquility in the marsh.

Great Egret gracefully turning towards shore
1/4000 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I’ve learned that, in a very quiet environment, I can hear the wings of large water birds as they take off. Sure enough, back on the main trail, a Great Egret lifted from the edge of the water behind me, and I turned at the “whoosh-whoosh” of his wings just in time to catch this graceful image. The background is a bit cluttered, but I really liked his wing position and reflection, so evocative of the peaceful marshland.

Male Downy Woodpecker
1/3200 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The trail between the spillway and Elm Lake is lined with very tall trees, and I’ve often seen woodpeckers there. Sure enough, high above me a male Downy Woodpecker perched watchfully on a branch. Note that the tip of his lower bill has been broken off. Being a bird is hard.

Note also the buffy color of his chest and tummy. All About Birds describes the very common Downy Woodpecker (Eastern) found throughout most of the US with a white belly, and the quite uncommon Downy Woodpecker (Pacific) which is limited to western portions of Oregon, Washington and northern California, with a buffy tummy. As near as I can tell, the only distinguishing characteristic is that buffy tummy. So… maybe I saw a Pacific way out of his range.

Not one, but TWO Downy Woodpeckers, giving each other the eye
1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Using my new focusing techniques, I was concentrating on the bird… when I realized there was a second bird in the same frame. I managed to change my f/stop from f/7.1 to f/10, but failed to change the ISO to get more light, so the exposure on the rest of these shots has been adjusted fairly significantly in post-processing.  My big question was, were they a pair?

And it’s on
1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

They certainly didn’t look cooperative or companionable.

Two male Downy Woodpeckers battle over territory
1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Ah-ha. In the above shot, you can clearly see that both birds are males. They both have the red patch at the back of their head; females are missing this marking. So, this is a battle over territory. My research revealed that male Downy Woodpeckers will fight other males, and females will fight other females, over territory. A quick Google search found many images of fighting Downies. I also found a detailed and fascinating paper describing the territorial conflicts of Downy Woodpeckers.

White belly clearly visible…
Buffy tummy, maybe?

I know, I know. I failed to keep up with their frantic movements and keep them in the frame. I included the shot on the left because of the half-circle shape of one bird’s wings. This shape is seen in several of my shots, including the fuzzy shot on the right, as they grappled and beat with their wings, and as they flew apart; I’ll be looking for opportunities to get better shots of this characteristic posture.

Two male Downy Woodpeckers whirling in battle
1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

They continued madly spinning and grappling… without a sound. I wondered afterward if I simply failed to notice the sound due to intense concentration on my camera, but my husband confirms he didn’t hear anything either. Downy Woodpeckers have a short chirping/whistling call, but their main communication to attract a mate, or to announce territory, is drumming. They don’t appear to have an alarm or attack screech.

Downy Woodpecker taking shelter under a limb
1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

They appeared tired after their aerial battle, landing to glare at each other. One would fly briefly upwards in attack posture, and the other would take cover on the opposite side of a branch. Note that the red patch on the branch is not blood, it is a harmless lichen growing on the tree bark. As near as I can tell going back through more than 500 photos, no blood was drawn.

1/3200 sec. f/10 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Finally, they perched a couple feet apart… then each took off in separate directions, and we lost them among the leafy branches.

So, the puzzle of which varieties of Downy (Eastern or Pacific) I’d seen will remain unanswered. A varietal difference certainly might account for increased conflict… but the accounts I’ve found indicate that Downies don’t need additional incentives, they are just scrappy.

As much as images of birds can convey grace and beauty, I’m reminded that they live in a high-stakes world where assuring reproductive success is a serious business. Good territory means fewer predators, safe and warm nesting holes, plentiful plump bugs, and a clear view of any interlopers. Hopefully each will find a good spot in the park to raise his family.

6 thoughts on “Downy Détente”

  1. Nice shots Sam – Always enjoy looking at bird behaviors and I know how hard it is to get those territory fights in the tin. Looked a lot at these shots as I am always struggling to distinguish the hairy from the downy – especially when there isn’t another size reference to compare with. That leaves the bill length test and the black spots on the outer tail feathers. Your first female bill size was a bit larger than I expected and didn’t have the visible spots on the outer tail feathers (in the white), but looked at the range for the hairy and looks like it is just outside the Brazos area. You can definitely see the tell-tail spots on the in flight pictures. As always, thanks for sharing your beautiful captures. Note, we visited Brazos Bend SP for the first time while we were down there in January – definitely enjoyed that park but a little taken back by the incredible numbers of vultures hanging out in the trees there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I’ve learned to look for the tail spots first when trying to tell Downy from Hairy. So glad you got to see BBSP! You are right, the Gulf Coast area has a significant vulture population. There is prolific wildlife across the entire region. The park is also in an area of cultivated farmland and high-speed farm roads, which contributes to the vultures’ food source.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great experience and you had enough shutter speed to capture it! I don’t know about this Pacific/Eastern split but if they are “races” then there could be interbreeding along the overlap.

    But you are exactly right about the woodpeckers being “scrappy”. A rehabber friend of mine says they ALL come out of the shell fighting. She has to separate nest-mates to keep them from injuring each other and thinks it is amazing any of them make it to adulthood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose that means that, by adulthood, they are all seasoned warriors, and woe to any non-Downy that might threaten their nest! Thanks for the insight, Linda!


  3. Happy Anniversary to you and Chuck! :o) Sounds like you had a lovely day out, glad the sunshine cooperated. I love the photo of the egret with the feathers just kissing the water – what an awesome shot! And the woodpeckers sound like they gave you an interesting show! Lots of love to you both,

    Liked by 2 people

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