Birder’s Eye View: Welcome back hoodies, suckers and rumps to Savannah

This is a test. Do you speak bird? For the average person, a hoodie is a sweatshirt with a hood, a sucker is either a lollipop or a person easily fooled, and a rump is the fleshy hindquarter of a four-legged mammal.

 

However, for us bird watchers, these words are shorthand for a few of our winter resident birds. A hoodie is a fancy, fish-eating duck, the hooded merganser. A sucker is our winter-only woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, while a rump is the shortened nickname for our most abundant winter warbler — the yellow-rumped warbler.

Even though the temperatures have felt more like late summer than fall, our cast of bird characters has been changing. Summer and scarlet tanagers, blue and rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo and painted buntings, great crested flycatchers, eastern kingbirds, swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites, and a host of warblers and vireos have quietly departed for the tropics.

Moving into the area from points north are ruby and golden-crowned kinglets, eastern phoebes, blue-headed vireos, eastern meadowlarks, an assortment of sparrows (affectionately known as “lbj’s” or “little brown jobbies,” and a host of ducks.

Hoodies

Ah, ducks! That brings us back to the aforementioned hoodies. I walked down to the pond on the north end of Tybee on Nov. 6 and spied something floating on the water. I focused my binoculars on it, expecting a laughing gull. What I saw had a long narrow beak, brownish back with some striping, and a fancy black-and-white head — my first-of-the-season (FOTS) male hooded merganser.

It was strange to see him all alone. Ducks are social creatures, usually found hanging about in flocks with their friends. I expect that by next week, Mr. Hoodie will have a few tawny brown females in tow, all sporting their characteristic punk hairdos. At the height of the winter duck season, some lagoons on Skidaway Island may host flocks of 60 to 80 hoodies. While the narrow, serrated beaks of these beauties are perfect for grasping slippery fish, they can be lured to shore with a regular offering of cracked corn.

Suckers

The suckers — short for sapsuckers — begin arriving in our area in early October. If you rub me the wrong way, I might have to call you a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I just love the way that name rolls off the tongue.

The birds don’t actually suck sap. They use the feathery tips of their tongues to lap sap from the lines of holes that they drill through tree bark, usually in concentric circles around the trunk or branches.

These “sap wells” also attract insects that supply the sapsuckers with much-needed protein. Other birds such as warblers and hummingbirds have been observed mining the wells when the sapsucker is looking the other way.

The first field mark I look for to identify a sapsucker is the prominent stripe running vertically along its wing. Then, on the males, I note the red throat and red top of the head. Females lack the red throat. Sapsuckers make a soft “mewing” call, in addition to the persistent “tap, tap, tap” that can be heard as they excavate their holes.

Rumps

Birds don’t exactly have rumps, at least not in the way mammals do. The term rump is used to refer to the feathers that lie beneath the folded wings of a perched bird, on the top of the tail.

During the winter, our wax myrtle thickets will be swarming with flocks of small warblers. If you stand quietly and make a series of embarrassing smacking or hissing noises, a host of them will generally fly in to investigate. The trick is to get one to stand still and flash its signature yellow rump.

In the winter, yellow-rumped warblers have gray backs, white bellies, dark streaks along the sides and a bit of yellow at the overlapping bend of the wings. In the spring, males dress up for the dance by putting on black masks and bibs, adding brighter yellow sidebars and a yellow spot on the top of their head.

But that won’t be for five more months, giving us ample time to hope for some cooler weather and speculate on the arrival date of those increasingly fickle feathered favorites, the American goldfinches. Good birding!

Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at dichurchbirds@gmail.com.

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See more photos with this column online at Savannahnow.ccom.

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Sat, 11/18/2017 - 11:21pm

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