Mystery Bird: Gilded Flicker, Colaptes chrysoides

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[Mystery bird] Gilded Flicker, Colaptes chrysoides, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Richard Ditch, 2005 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2005:04:26 15:20:04
Exposure Time: 1/124
F-Number: 16.00
ISO: 200

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

Forget the bird -- what on earth is that plant? We're used to woodpeckers clambering about in good solid trees: Red-headeds in cottonwoods, Red-cockadeds in pitch pines, Arizonas in live oaks; but this one -- identifiable as a woodpecker by its spiky tail and chisel-like bill -- clings to a dead-looking vertical twig evenly covered with nasty-looking spines. Sure looks like ocotillo to me, a classic plant of the Sonoran desert of Arizona and northwest Mexico.

And ocotillo + big woodpecker = Gilded Flicker. We know right away it's a flicker by its barred brown back and long bill; starting at the rear (where have you heard this before?), we see a single yellow shaft on one of the right-hand tail feathers, eliminating Red-shafted Flicker. We can't see the shape of the black breast patch or the extent of black on the undersurfaces of the rectrices, but this red-moustached male shows his distinctive head pattern to full effect: a gray neck and auriculars capped by a bright brown crown. The fine, pale barring on the mantle reinforces the identification as Gilded Flicker.

The AOU currently recognizes Gilded Flicker as a species distinct from Northern (Red-shafted and Yellow-shafted) Flicker (and all the other Colaptes woodpeckers); that view is not universally shared, and Gilded and collaris ["canescens"] Red-shafted Flickers interbreed in Arizona and Sonora. I suspect that most such hybrids and introgressants are essentially indistinguishable in the field from one or the other of the "pure" parental types. An interesting concern -- if you're given to worrying about such things--is raised by the possibility of an introgressant Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker that resembles the latter form in its wing and tail pattern and the former in its head plumage, thus closely replicating a Gilded Flicker; in my experience in the Midwest, though, such birds almost always show obvious signs of intergradation when examined closely, and the one such intergrade I've seen in Arizona had a clear red nuchal patch, absent on either Gilded or "pure" Red-shafted Flicker. The flickers, like the juncos and so many other avian taxa, are a real test of any species concept, and present one of the best arguments for an extreme nominalist view of bird taxonomy.

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I wanted this to be a gilded flicker. The extent of brown on the crown and nape is hard to see in this pose, but it looks to me like it could be more extensive (gilded) rather than less extensive (northern). Also, I want to believe I'm seeing just the slightest hint of yellow peaking out from under the edge of the left wing, rather than the salmon I'd see if this were the red-shafted race of the northern flicker (which it would have to be if it's a northern, based on the male's red mustache mark).

But on balance, I think both those could just be me tricking myself, because I want this to be a more-exotic bird than the flickers I see all the time. If I have to pick one, I'll say northern, rather than gilded, based on this view. But in the field I'd certainly want to study it for a while to see more of it and make sure.

Agree on the western subspecies of flicker due to the red slash on its jaw.

I tried all last winter to lure a flicker to my feeders. I had about eight different suet stations but never could get a flicker to come in. I'd see them several streets over, but never in my yard. I had downys and red-bellied woodpeckers galore, but just couldn't attract a flicker.

Its a flicker, but since its Arizona it could be a northern or gilded. I can't tell which one it is.

Upon still further review, I'm pretty sure there's a hint of yellow in the tail as well. Which again, combined with the male's red mustache, seals the deal.

Red-shafted Northern Flicker - face and crown, and place - and I don't see the yellow on the wings. I have a pair of yellow-shafted Northern near where I work.

Gilded Flicker, based on the brown of the crown extending well behind the eye. Nat.Geo's Complete Birds of N. America reads: "The Red-shafted has a grayish head and throat with pale brown on the forecrown and loral regions... The crown of the Gilded is more extensively brown than in the Red-shafted Northern..." Sibley's illustrations show the brown of the Red-shafted's head restricted as in this description, though Peterson's and (old) Nat. Geo's do not.

Rufous-colored forehead, gray face and red malar: male Gilded Flicker.