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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
They certainly didn’t look cooperative or companionable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.