Flame of the Forest – Woody Woodpecker #4

August 10, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Posted in itchy fingers | 4 Comments
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Itchyfingers were at a nature reserve in Malaysia when we spotted this woody. We recognised it as the female Flameback woodpecker, and was excited to see it sitting in a nest. So far, we have found nests of the Laced Woodpecker and the Sunda Woodpecker, but we have not found any nest of the Flameback…

The black crest indicated that it was a female bird, but this was definitely
different from the usual Common Flameback (Dinopium javanense) we are
so used to seeing…Wow! Itchyfingers had found a female Greater Flameback
(Chrysocolaptes guttacristatus)! This is supposedly extinct in Singapore and rare
in Malaysia!

How did Itchfyingers know that it was the Greater and not the Common Flameback? Compare this picture…Can you see the difference?

The female Common Flameback. This is a medium size woody about 28-30cm,
while the Greater Flameback is much larger, at 34 cm length. Note the difference
in the  dark moustachial lines – single in the Common and double striped for
the Greater Flameback. The bill for the Greater is as long as the head while
the Common has a shorter bill. Common Flameback has darker eyes while the
Greater has whitish to yellow iris. Another feature to look out for – there are
only three toes in Common Flameback, giving it the chinese name of 
金背三趾啄木鸟 while the Greater has four zygodactyl toes (two toes pointing
forward, two backward)

We could hear the call of the other bird, presumably the male, but he was nowhere to be seen…Even the female Greater Flameback was on a lookout for him…

Raising her crest….I think the lady was pissed off…Haha…

We waited for some time and still no sight of the male. The female seemed to be losing her patience too….

She came out for an inspection of the nesting hole….Not sure if she
was merely testing out the tree hole or if there were any eggs or chicks
cos she was not doing the feeding. The male was still calling but we were
so disappointed when he did not appear

We waited for some time and still no action…the female did not go back to the hole too. For some reasons that I couldn’t remember now, we didn’t manage to go back again to check out the pair. Must be caught up with some work again…Darn!

Our next visit to the same reserve was quite some time later. Couldn’t believe our luck when we saw another Greater Flameback female!

She soon landed on a tree with a hole! Itchyfingers just found another 
Greater Flameback nest! 😀

This time we were very sure that she was gonna use the hole for nesting, cos she was very actively excavating!

Excavation in process! Keep out!

Flying wood chips! 😀 Dunu if any of these small bits will fly into the eyes?
Research found that “in the fractions of a second just before their beaks
strike wood, woodpeckers’ thick nictitans – membranes found beneath the
lower lid of many animals’ eyes and sometimes called the “third eyelid”
– close over their eyes to protect them from debris and keep them in place.”

Have you ever wonder why woodpeckers never suffer any concussion from the constant forceful hammering onto hard wood? “A woodpecker’s skull is built to absorb shock and minimise damage. The bone that surrounds the brain is thick and spongy, and loaded with trabeculae, microscopic beam-like bits of tissue that give the bone a tightly woven ‘mesh’ for support and protection. On their scans, the scientists found that this spongy bone is unevenly distributed in woodpeckers, and occurred more around the forehead and the back of the skull, where it could act as a shock absorber.” You can read more from this site or this site.

Sometimes she will grab a mouthful of the wood chips deeper from the hole…

…and discard them far away in a swift turn of her head!

Raising her crest again…I like this punky hairstyle….hahah. Can you manage
to look at the four toes here?

To make our day, the male Greater Flameback flew in to take over the excavation job!

What a handsome male! There are more colour variations in different
subspecies of the Greater Flameback

A male Common Flameback for comparison. Now we know some of the
features to look out for…

The male hard at work. Both male and female have a red rump…Scientists
also believe that woodpecker know how to vary the angles in which they peck
on, hence reducing the impact. No wonder we observed them changing
positions very often when they did the hammering inside the hole…

While digging, both male and female would stop periodically and look out
from both sides, probably to check if there were any potential predators
around. I think at this stage, they would not hesitate to abandon the nesting
hole if they sensed that there were any danger….

The alert male stopped and tried to hide behind the tree when he heard and 
saw some monkeys passing by…The four toes are clearly visible here

The two birds took turn to do their job. Most of the time, the arrival of the next bird would be announced with the shrill call, very similar to that of the Common Flameback. You need to have a keen ear to pick up the subtle difference. One of the most exciting moments beside witnessing the hammering and excavating being done, must be when this happened….

We got the image of the pair together! This is not photoshopped! The 
female was digging inside the hole when the male suddenly perched on
the other side….

The male flipping his wings, perhaps to let the female know that he’s 
ready to take over?

Beautiful pair of Greater Flamebacks!

The male slowly moving closer….”Ok, it’s your break time now! I’ll take over!”

Other time, while the male was hard at work, the female would fly in quietly
for a spot check! 😀

“Lemme see….”

This bit is not cleaned up properly…” What a fussy female! Hahah…
Teamwork is always the best!

Itchyfingers spent quite a long time documenting the pair, until our entire energy were drained and we had to leave in order not to be stucked in the traffic back to Singapore. We estimated that it would take at least another three to four weeks before we could see any feeding activities if the pair succeeded in their breeding. Coming back too often would cause disturbance to the pair and they may abandon the nesting hole.

Finally, after around one month, we couldn’t wait to see cute woody chicks begging for food from the parents! But when we reached the location, there were no woodpecker’s nest! We couldn’t even find the tree! The tree seemed to have varnished! GONE!!!!!

The reason was simple…The tree with the nesting hole was destroyed!!!! What was left was only this….

A broke off stump left…It had been raining quite heavily in Singapore for
the past few days, and obviously the storm had also hit our neighbour
in Malaysia. The tree hole excavated by the woodpeckers might have
made the tree less strong to withstand the storm and it broke off somewhere
where the nesting hole was supposed to be! Damn!

Itchyfingers couldn’t believe our rotten luck! We were so hopeful to see a successful nesting of the Greater Flamebacks and now a merciless storm had destroyed that hope completely! The birds did not rebuild their nest in any of the nearby tree and we didn’t hear their calls when we were there….sigh….We tried to check if there were any broken eggs or carcasses of young chicks but the muddy mangrove ground was not the easiest spot for inspection from far….We just hope that the tree was destroyed before any eggs were laid or the birds had decided to build their nest somewhere else when they saw more monkeys in the area, otherwise it would be so sad for the parents to lose their chicks…As for itchyfingers, we would have to pray for better luck next time and perhaps more diligence in following up with any nesting!

Also see related posts:
> A Lacy Affair – Woody Woodpecker #3
The Demands of Parenthood – Woody Woodpecker #2
Raising a Family – Woody Woodpecker #1



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  1. Beautiful Photo.

  2. wow amazing photos, you got alot of good shots, I feel sorry for the birds,they worked so hard on that hole only to have the tree fall down, they seem to work pretty fast too, bet they have a headache now that their tree is gone, they are very beautiful birds, love the yellow backs and black and white spots.

    • They are beautiful indeed. Hope our next visit there will be more fruitful!

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