Monday, April 8, 2013

UHHH…YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER?






























I make no claim at being a great birder. At best, I'm adequate, or as my granddaddy might have said, "fair-to-middlin'." I'm particularly shaky when it comes to birds I don't observe regularly, haven't seen in a long time, or individuals which don't look quite like their brethren. Females and juveniles can sometimes also be a problem. I'm pretty provincial, too.

Other identification issues for me can involve lighting, length of time seen, overall clarity—whether there's lots of screening brush or leaves between—viewing distance of the subject in question, and the habitat in which a sighting takes place—i.e., a bird out of place, appearing in unfamiliar or unexpected territory. 

None of which is apt to prove much of a challenge to an expert birder…but as I say, I'm plainly not in that league. Hence the request for confirmation or correction—whichever is needed—of the bird in the photo, which I made yesterday.

I think it's a yellow-bellied sapsucker. For whatever reason, I seldom see more than one or two per year here along the river. And most—the ones I do spot, anyway—have distinctive red forehead patches, plus males also sport a matching red throat patch. The bird in the photo has neither. No red throat patch and an overall black cap. 

My guess is a juvenile yellow-bellied, though whether male or female I haven't a clue. A quick troll through the Internet failed to help. Neither do any of the field guides on my shelves go into distinctions of male vs. female first year birds, nor make any mention of a black cap; none show an all-black cap in illustrations of immatures, or a lack of red on adult females. This includes a copy of the fairly definitive Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World, by Winkler, Christie, and Nurney—400-plus pages, 214 species. 

I understand that books can't show every variation within a species. But while I expect the white wing stripe is more-or-less definitive, I remain mildly confused on the point of the all-black cap, and whether it's an adult female or first-year juvenile. I'd welcome your input.

32 comments:

Carolyn H said...

Yep, it's a sapsucker and a juvenile. Interesting, t00 because they are only supposed to hold their juvenile plumage through the winter and winter is over. I'm guessing it's going to be a male, but don't me to that one!

Carolyn H said...

Me again: I always look for that white wing stripe. I don't think anything else has that. The black cap is unusual. Is there such a thing as a hairy woodpecker x sapsucker? Probably not.

Helen said...

I hope you can see it again this summer. Could be a female Hairy woodpecker or a yellow bellied Sapsucker either one according to the color and markings.

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn x 2…

Thank you! That's pretty much what I'd concluded, but only because I could think of a better guess that seemed plausible. And it was the white wing stripe that seemed to cinch it—though that big book I mentioned, which is the best reference I've seen on woodpeckers, does show any number of woodpeckers with wing stripes…which is where the "plausible" part came in. I didn't expect it might be a species from Syria or North Africa. :-D

Funny you should mention a hairy/sapsucker cross—that thought also crossed my mind, given the black cap. They're about the same size, of course. But I've not come across any mention of such a thing happening. That black cap was the one feature I couldn't reconcile with images of sapsucker juveniles. So who knows?

Anyway, thank you again. I just don't see many sapsuckers and didn't trust my own ID call.

Grizz………… said...

Helen…

I've been watching as I could today, but no luck so far. I'm hoping it will hang around, though.

The thing that bothered me about thinking it might be a female hairy was the yellow-gold coloration—even brighter, I believe, when looking at the bird than it appears in the photo, and way more colored up than any female hairy I've ever seen. Hairy woodpeckers are pretty common hereabouts; I see one or two almost every day.

Too, there was that white wing bar—typical on a sapsucker, not so for a hairy. But then again, the total lack of red and the black cap aren't typical of a juvenile sapsucker.

Scott said...

Grizz: It's a real puzzle, but I've got to agree with Carolyn--that it's likely a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, though an unusual specimen. No one has reported a Sapsucker around here for many weeks; they're long gone from my neck of the woods.

Kali and I were nearly strafed by a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers last Friday during a walk in my preserve. Based on your posts, they seem to be fairly common where you are, but they're always a treat to see here. For years, they were nearly completely unknown here, but we seem to be seeing them more and more frequently.

Grizz………… said...

Scott…

I'm kinda glad this sapsucker—which seems to be the right ID—at least turns out to be a fairly unusual specimen. No use in me appearing dumber than necessary.

On the other hand, I do know about pileateds—as I see and hear them every day, practically any time I care to step outside. They're easily spooked, but about as easy to see at, say, a 50-yard distance, as a downy, hairy, or red-bellied; you have to be sneaky or lucky to see them close-up. I even got a photo series pileateds mating a couple of years back. There are several pairs in residence hereabouts. During the winter, a couple of pairs will visit a feeder at the same time. If I remember right, a neighbor said he saw six all on the same feeder! I'm also well aware pileateds are supposed to be quite territorial; apparently these are peaceable pileateds. Have never been dive-bombed by a pileated…though in the home where I grew up, screech owls liked to build in one of Dad's squirrel boxes in a backyard haw, and every time—day or night—you walked into the back yard, if the owls didn't recognize you, or you walked too close, you got nailed. And I mean a solid whack atop your head that drew blood! I've watched pileateds whack out wood chips the size of my palm, and I surely wouldn't want a head-rap from that chisel. It'd be the real life version of that old Beatles song about Maxwell's Silver Hammer!

Grace Bezanson said...

I don't know what kind of bird that is, only that I don't think in lives in my neck of the woods. But I know the feeling you express about seeing something and trying to discover what it could be--that's part of the fun that I imagine expert birders lose after a while. Call is the chase, if you will:)

Grizz………… said...

Grace…

You're quite right that finding something unfamiliar, then trying to solve the mystery is a great deal of fun. That's certainly a real part of birding. Even for an expert, there's always new stuff to learn…though maybe not so many new "mystery" birds. Which is why some keep Life Lists or go chasing off to distant corners where there are new birds to pursue.

Me? I'm still confused by warblers, the occasional sparrow, and most of the whole gaggle of those Little Brown Jobs you see scurrying along various watery edges. Mystery sufficient to keep me occupied the rest of my days.

The Weaver of Grass said...

The first bit of your definition could apply to me too Grizz because I originally come from Lincolnshire in the UK and all folk from Lincolnshire are called 'yellow bellies', My bird identification is about on a par with yours I would say - but whatever it is it is a lovely bird.

Grizz………… said...

Weaver…

Where I come from, saying someone is a "yellow-belly" is calling them a coward…an insult and sometimes fighting words. I'm assuming that's not the case in Lincolnshire.

I think the jury has pretty much concluded the bird is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, though a rather unusual specimen. Indeed a lovely bird.

As a naturalist I'm sort of a generalist, a "big picture" viewer, interested in everything—and reasonably knowledgable/familiar about most things outdoorsy. But NOT to be mistaken for an expert in all but possibly a very few rather esoteric areas. My birding skills, for example, were such that I immediately thought the bird I was seeing was a sapsucker…yet my experience did not include a sapsucker with a black cap, juvenile plumage out of season, and so much (to me) yellow. I lacked the expertise—and faith—to make that confident leap and declare it a yellow-bellied sapsucker in spite of my misgivings. That my "educated guess" turned out to be right doesn't change the fact that it was still a guess. I'm still learning…

Carolyn H said...

Grizz: I spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday looking at photos of immature yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I saw a few photos that had almost no red on them, thus looking very similar to your bird. none were as quite as lacking in red, and I suspect yours is just a tad unusual in its plumage. I've had juveniles hang around my cabin deep into winter, but they never stayed the entire winter. Usually, the first big snow chased them out and away, but with the kind of winters we've had lately, maybe the juvies are tempted to hang around and tough it out.

Grizz………… said...

Carolyn…

That's really nice, taking your time and all—and I appreciate it a lot. I did the same thing before I posted the shot—looked at image after image, trying to find a match. And I also found some fairly similar pix, though all still showed some red and, as I recall, lacked the all-black cap. To make it worse, it seemed like the closest photo matches linked to websites with little or no identification/explanation…even more frustrating!

You may very well be right re. the effect of recent winters on some birds deciding to hang around. Here, this year, the toughest part of winter would have been the final quarter—that's when we got most of our snow and cold. I saw turkey vultures every month, and not many "winter" birds. Changing weather patterns can certainly change a landscape and its inhabitants.

Johanna said...

I have a very similar picture I took 2 years ago at the beginning of May. (well, worse quality photo, but the black-headed bird, angle, & pose are strikingly similar) I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was. A birder friend reassured me that it was a sapsucker. I'm glad I'm not the only one to have been confused by a black and white sapsucker! I took some decent pictures of a colorful female this weekend--sapsuckers seem so calm and don't mind me stalking them with a camera. I just read that hummingbirds feed from sapsucker wells when they first return in the spring--another reason to not be upset by a few rows of holes.

Grizz………… said...

Johanna…

Hey, I'm absolutely delighted to learn I'm not the only one whose spotted a weird sapsucker. Actually, when looking at the bird through the camera's lens, I thought it a lot more yellow-gold than the image I've posted. It wasn't far away, maybe 25 feet, and just looking at it with the naked eye it also appeared quite yellowish. That was what made me think "yellow-bellied sapsucker" in the first place, all that gold coloration and obviously a woodpecker of the right size. I first figured juvenile. But then got to comparing internet images of juvies and couldn't reconcile those with mine because of both the black cap and total lack of red.

I've read the same thing re. sapsucker holes and hummingbirds. It makes sense, and I have no reason to doubt it, though I've never actually witnessed early hummers hereabouts doing this. Of course, there aren't a lot of sapsuckers around and thus not many holes to watch. Most of the early hummers I see are working various tree blooms.

Doug in North Dakota said...

I've been observing a black capped sapsucker this week and believe it's an adult female. About a week ago a male/female with normal sapsucker coloration appeared at a hole made in a previous year. About 2 days later the black capped sapsucker appeared with much noisy interaction. Within 2 more days the red capped female disappeared. Mating has now commenced with all of the associated indications that this pair intends to produce a new brood.

Grizz………… said...

Doug…

Appreciate you writing. It was good to read of your experience and interesting comments. Maybe the black-capped variation is more uncommon than rare—but I've never seen another one. I think the ID on the bird I saw and photographed was probably correct, though the pronounced overall yellow/gold undertone does seem truly unusual, given the info I've found and read.

Hey, who know—you may be witnessing the start of a new regional color race of sapsuckers!

Doug in North Dakota said...

Your photograph of the black capped sapsucker looks just like the one I'm seeing. The yellow cast is characteristic of sapsuckers I've seen. It appears to a greater or lesser extent with any one bird with variations in the ambient lighting. I have photographs of this unusual pair including mating.

Grizz………… said...

Doug…

See, that's part of what really puzzled me initially about my sapsucker…the pronounced golden color. I've never noted that before. Then, to couple it with a black cap, and nary a hint of red anywhere, just added to the mystery.

BTW, if you'd care to share them, I'd like to see your pix. (My email address is listed in a sort of turquoise to the right side of the blog's posts.)

Doug in North Dakota said...

Putting together our two instances of black capped sapsuckers doubles my known universe of this variant, so the information begs to be collected. I first noticed a normal male/female sapsucker pair on May 5th in Minot ND. They began inspecting and hanging out by a sapsucker hole made years earlier in this green ash. On May 6th a black capped and white throated sapsucker began noisy interactions with the pair. My first guess was an underdeveloped female, possibly one of their offspring. On May 7th, the male began a new hole a few feet below the current one. On May 8th the normal male and the black capped sapsucker are active around the hole. The original female wasn't seen again after May 6th. The male is chipping wood inside the original hole and expelling chips. By May 9th they are rotating time at the hole He abandons work on the new hole at less than an inch deep. On May 12 the mating pair was observed, which raises interesting questions about their potential brood, and also identifies her as a black capped female sapsucker. I'm emailing a few pictures of this unusual threesome. Notice that the picture of the original female shows the tip of her beak broken off.

Mary said...

Here in May in Maine we have been watching a single sapsucker which also has the black throat and head....if you get just the right angle there is a teeny tiny little dot of red on the head but not even a hint of it elsewhere. No research found this coloration. It will be interesting to see if it hangs around and some transformation occurs! It has mostly been filling up on suet but has approached some seeds.

Grizz………… said...

Doug…

My unusual male (?) was here just about exactly one month earlier…of course, just to state the obvious, there's a bit of a difference, weather-wise/season-wise between Ohio and North Dakota. As of this evening, I have not received your photos. Did you send them to macscribe(insert @ sign)gmail(insert dot/period)com? I'll keep checking as I'm anxious to see how alike they are. And I'll let you know when the pix arrive.

(Sorry to be slow in replying…I've been away from the desk a couple of days.)

Grizz………… said...

Mary…

You may be watching the sapsucker equivalent of the missing link…as your bird showed a hint of red in the right light, while mine (and I think Doug's) showed not a hint when viewed from all angles for an extended time. And believe me, I looked for any smidgin of red. So you are, with that tiny bit of red, bridging the gap. Maybe we should form a club! :-D

Doug said...

On the 19th I emailed 5 images of about 1MB each. Because file size may have been an issue, I emailed 4 of them, one at a time last night (Monday). Reviewing the comments you’ve received, I notice that there are two more instances of black capped sapsuckers observed (Johanna and Mary).
Digging a little deeper, I came across references to black crowned sapsucker females by Lawrence Kilham. “In the course of studying sapsuckers over 25 years and finding 69 nests, I have encountered 12 females that were black polymorphs having black or nearly black crowns. Attempts to find consistent differences in their breeding behavior have been unsuccessful.” This suggests the black crown may be present in 1 of 6 females indicating polymorphism, not mutation. His observations also indicate that the pair I’m observing will likely reproduce successfully. I can’t imagine ever knowing the phenotypes of their offspring.

Grizz………… said...

Doug…

First, your photos came, and they are terrific! (I believe it was the the second batch—really the third, wasn't it?—from the different account that made it. I receive emailed photos all the time, often large in size and numerous, generally without problems. But I'm not nearly tech—savvy enough to know what went wrong.)

Anyway, they are really great images and very interesting. I don't believe your bird was quite as golden as mine, but they're certainly just variants of the same issue—which I agree, given Kilham's numbers, to likely be polymorphic. Whether such variation occurs quite so often, I'm not so sure about…especially given the dearth of similar photos. But then, all photography is, to an extent, a matter of luck. We were indeed lucky, eh?

I may try and do some additional research. I'll let you know if I dig up anything worthwhile. Again, thank you for going the extra mile and resending the pix. I really appreciate you sharing them. Keep in touch, and please feel free to email me any time.

Mntncougar said...

Take a look in the 2nd edition of the Sibley Guide. Under Yb Sapsucker it shows a "Black Crowned" female YBSA. It's not a juvie, it's a variant of the standard bird. And a very good spot. I found your post while looking this up because I think I saw one today.

Grizz………… said...

Mntncougar…

I'm amazed you found your way here, to my sapsucker post from a couple of years back…but I'm glad you did. You're always welcome here at Riverdaze.

I think, after some discussion (see comments above) that our consensus was also black polymorph female. So looks like we got it right. I know I was certainly confused at the time I spotted and photographed my odd YBSA.

Thanks for the Sibley reference. And again, please feel free to visit and comment at any time.

Gene McGarry said...

I have been photographing a black-crowned female Yellow-bellied sapsucker for the last several days. She is definitely an adult female as I have been watching her and her male counterpart bringing food to their nest cavity and carrying waste away. Sibley does reference the morph as unusual. I have been sending photos to a guy in Oregon who has written/is writing a Peterson Woodpecker guide that will be released next spring.

Gene McGarry said...

I have been watching and photographing a Black-crowned female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the past several days. She and her mate are carrying food to and waste away from the nest cavity in an Ash Tree here in Woodstock, NY. No doubt about her being n adult female bird. Been a real treat watching this bird and I will continue hanging out with her until the hatchlings fledge.

Grizz………… said...

Gene…

I'm envious! Wow! I only saw the one I wrote about and photographed very briefly. However, I'm coming to suspect "black crowned" birds are not quite as rare as once thought—though certainly still a rare sighting for an individual birder. But there are probably one or two around a fairly large general area every year. Just not a lot of folks out there looking close and knowing what they're seeing. But you are beyond lucky in being able to watch one over an extended time. Let me know how it goes…and thanks for commenting.

Glenn in Connecticut said...

Hi there. Love your site -- good to see so many kindred spirits here in your comments. I found your photo of the black-crowned YBS the same way Mntncougar did. Saw this perplexing woodpecker outside our window just the other day (we're fortunate to be surrounded by several hundred acres of state forest land in addition to our own little piece). We recently picked up Sibley's book and there it was. Found no other reference to it other than your post and photo. Sibley only shows the female with no red -- I'm wondering whether the male has any red coloration. Maybe Gene would know.

Grizz………… said...

Glenn…

Please excuse my being so slow to post your comment and this reply—got caught up in remodeling work here at the cottage and hadn't logged onto the blog in several days.

The sum total of my strange/weird/unusual YB sapsucker experience has been this single bird. Typically marked YBSs, yes…but no repeat of a bird similar to the one in the post photo. That's apparently an uncommonly odd sapsucker. I am surprised that so little has been written about such variants—though I guess this lack simply reflects their rarity. Guess we were both lucky to have seen one.

Thank you for your nice words regarding the blog. I'm glad you enjoyed it and hope you visit often. You're always welcome.