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Tag: woodpecker

Mixed Woodpecker Flocks in an Alaskan Burn

by Bryce W. Robinson


Male Black-backed Woodpecker working his way through a burn near Willow, Alaska. 

My friends Luke, Charlie, Linnaea and I recently visited a year old burn site near Willow, Alaska. Our purpose for the visit was to find a rarely encountered woodpecker species, the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arctics). Luke had visited the site a year prior, only about a month after the burn, and found quite a few woodpeckers already foraging on the burned spruce. We were hoping to have the same luck.

When we reached the burn, we took a few roads that led towards the location Luke had luck in the year prior. While driving I noticed tan bark chippings flecked off of the charred trees, a sure sign of foraging woodpeckers.


Downy Woodpecker foraging on a burnt spruce.

We set out on foot down a two track that led into a portion of the forest. Only two hundred meters down the track we heard woodpeckers. We first heard a Hairy Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), but soon after came the husky call of a Black-backed. We quickly had visual, and soon after had others. Multiple Black-backed Woodpeckers, the magic of the burn.

The flock foraged along through the forest, much like a winter passerine flock foraging through deciduous groves. Soon the birds had gone, and we continued down the track only to find more woodpeckers.


Hairy Woodpecker foraging low on a burnt spruce.

We counted many individuals. At one point we were surrounded by Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens). Other birds joined the flock, including White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula), Myrtle’s Warbler (Setophaga coronata coronata), and Wilson’s Warbler (Cardellina pusilla). It was interesting to watch the woodpeckers interact with the passerines. Many times the Myrtle’s Warblers would chase the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Mixed flocks are excellent. Even more, a mixed flock is a symbol of fire ecology and the importance of natural fire cycles for many species, particularly Black-backed Woodpecker. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the photos I really wanted of the birds and their foraging behaviors. I’ll make it back to the burn soon, hopefully to film some behaviors as well. That way I can fully portray the importance of burns for these birds, and the excellent behavior of flecking bark in search of food.


Possible Red-naped X Red-Breasted Sapsucker Hybird: An Identification Dilemma

by Bryce W. Robinson

Possible RNSA x RBSA

Identifying true hybrids can be mind bending. Attempting to work out the ID can, however, provide a great opportunity to strengthen your knowledge and understanding of distributions and distinguishing characteristics between the species involved.

The bird pictured was reported a few days ago along the Boise River in south west Idaho as a Red-naped Sapsucker, possibly a hybrid with the Red-breasted Sapsucker. This morning, my friends Jay, Heidi, Mitch, and I went in search of the bird to get some photos and see what we thought of its plumage. 

Three Sapsucker species comprise the varius group, including Red-naped (nuchalis),  Red-breasted (ruber and daggetti), and Yellow-bellied (varius), which were all once considered conspecific. Now, each bird is recognized as a distinct species, yet at the confluence of each range, there is regular hybridization. The result is a confusing number of sapsuckers, waiting for the aware and inquisitive birder to work out their identification. 

The Red-breasted Sapsucker breeds on the west side of the Cascade range, continuing north into British Columbia. The area that RBSA and RNSA distributions meet is rather extensive in range, and provides the opportunity for extensive hybridization. It is then very possible for hybridization to occur in British Columbia, with birds migrating into the great basin and ending up in winter in places like Boise. Possible, plausible, but only conjecture.

Possible RNSA x RBSA

This bird shows mostly the distinctive features of Red-naped Sapsucker. 

Here is my breakdown of the bird:

1. The back pattern is typical of RNSA, having two distinctive columns of white descending down the back.

2. The lack of red in the breast, and the dark black breast patch is typical of RNSA.

3. The facial pattern and nape are where this bird strays from the typical RNSA, and why I am considering this a possible hybrid. Note the extensive red in the cheek of the bird. It continues from the throat, breaking the white cheek line, and continuing through the white superciliary. To my knowledge, this is not typical for RNSA.

4. Lastly, the black bar on the back of the nape is broken by red. Again, to my knowledge, this is not typical of RNSA.

Possible RNSA x RBSA

So, is this a RNSA X RBSA hybrid? Could it be a backcross? Well, I think so, but can’t be sure. It is different, and peaks my curiosity. I’ll certainly be studying the subject more, and looking twice at all sapsuckers I come upon from here forward.

Here is a list of resources I used for this post. I welcome any comments and discussion on this bird.

1. Sapsucker Hybrids by S. Shunk. Birding May/June 2005

2. Hybridization Between Red-breasted (Sphyrapicus rubber) and Red-naped (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) Sapsuckers by J. Garrett 

3. The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America. 2000


The Possibility of a Ladder-backedXNuttall’s Woodpecker Hybrids in Southern California

by Bryce W. Robinson

A possible male Nuttall'sXLadder-backed cross.

A possible male Nuttall’sXLadder-backed cross at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.

Recently I went birding with some friends at the Whitewater Preserve on the edge of the desert in southern California. My friend Dan Williams is more experienced with the birds in the area, and has a great ear. He picked up on something that I’ve been paying attention to since.

The Whitewater Preserve is located in an area that is the meeting point for the ranges of two very similar woodpeckers, the Ladder-backed and Nuttall’s. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a species of the southwest that frequents semi-arid landscapes. The Nuttall’s is a California coastal species, preferring riparian areas. Very similar in appearance and habits, it is easy to confuse the two when in an area where it is unclear which is expected, such as the transition zone between the two.

We heard a woodpecker fly overhead calling. Dan recognized the call as a Nuttall’s, but when it landed it resembled a Ladder-backed in appearance. This began my inquiry into the occurrence of hybridization in the region. I found many discussions on the topic, with no clear or definitive conclusion of how, if, or where this really occurs.

I returned later to the Whitewater preserve in hopes of recording and photographing as many woodpeckers as I was able. I failed, but I did get to know the woodpeckers of the region a bit better. I found many birds, and one female that supported the idea that these birds are hybridizing in the area.

Last night I went birding in the Big Morongo Preserve. It was great birding. The Summer Tanagers have returned in good numbers. I kept tuned to finding woodpeckers in this area, as it is not far from the Whitewater preserve. I finally found a male woodpecker, and sure enough, it showed characteristics of both species.

First, I heard the woodpecker. In my mind, it sounded just as the Ladder-backed Woodpeckers sound across the southwest, but when it landed, I noticed a few things that were unlike the Ladder-backed.

Possible Nuttall'sXLadder-backed Woodpecker. Note the dark black patch on the upper back, and extensive red of the crown, two contradictory features.

Possible Nuttall’sXLadder-backed Woodpecker. Note the dark black patch on the upper back, and extensive red of the crown, two contradictory features.

1. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker has striping that extends to its neck. The Nuttall’s has a patch of black on the top of its back. This bird resemble the Nuttall’s in this regard.

2. The male Ladder-backed has red on his crown that extends forward above the eye. The Nuttall’s red is less extensive, and sits on the back of the head. This bird resembles the Ladder-backed in this regards.

3. The Facial pattern of the Ladder-backed is dominated by white. The black markings are rather thin. The Nuttall’s facial pattern is dominated by black. Thick black lines swallow up the face. This bird is tricky, it looks much like a Nuttall’s, but the white above the eye and to the back of the head is rather prominent. I included an image of a Ladder-backed I photographed in Texas last month with a facial pattern much like the bird from Morongo.



There are other nuances separating the two species such as the pattern of the outer retrices, spotting or streaking on the flanks, cream color or white of the pale parts, bill shape, etc. All of these aspects are learned through exposure, in my mind. The more you see both species, the more you will recognize the minutia that separates the two.

If anyone stumbles on this post that has any information on the subject, knowledge, or experience with both birds, I would love to hear your ideas. In my mind, the evidence is fairly clear indicating that this bird is likely a hybrid, or cross back. That makes the possibility or regularity of this occurrence rather high in my mind. You just have to be in the right place. Or maybe I just got lucky.



A Personal Photo First: The Hairy Woodpecker

by Bryce W. Robinson


Not too many mornings ago, I found myself in a mountain home, overlooking a mountain valley, admiring the mountain birds. The home had a large window array on its back end, providing healthy viewing of flitting and such from a host of active birds. Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees sped from tree to tree, about their business. A group of Pine Siskin came and went, and came again. Red-breasted Nuthatches twitched about, nervously checking needles and limbs for food. It was a mountain morning, full of light and life.

The arrival of a woodpecker is always celebrated. Watching from the windows, I saw a black and white bird traveling the trees. This bird was the Downy Woodpecker, a common, but celebrated sight. While watching the small woodpecker, I noticed another. Larger, and about its own business, was the Hairy Woodpecker. Having both in my view was of value. Seemingly identical, it is helpful to watch both at once, bouncing back and forth, analyzing minute differences that set each apart. After you know each bird well, the identification becomes second nature, and the large, long billed Hairy is unmistakable.

This Hairy stayed with me a while. It was intent upon chiseling at the trees to uncover its morning meal. Recognizing a relatively stationary subject among the hustle and bustle of the mountain passerines, I grabbed my camera and went to work,documenting the activity of the Hairy. One thing that has always puzzled me is the mechanics of the drumming woodpecker. How does it prevent damaging its brain while it taps and slams at trees? While pondering this I did notice something, not really remarkable, and rather obvious. Still, I find it neat. Every time the bird strikes the tree it closes its nictitating membrane, shielding its eye from wood shavings.

IMG_4940 copy

The Hairy Woodpecker kept about for minutes. I kept at it with my camera as well. It traveled from tree to tree, checking here, picking there, searching and finding and then back at the search again. At times it would check about for any watchers or threats. At these times I caught endearing images of an inquisitive but very serious bird.

Minutes passed and the Hairy Woodpecker flew from view. I then turned back to watch the other birds about their business. I envy those of that mountain home. They have the view, with a back deck overlooking the mountainside. Surrounded by trees, there is no shortage of birds that flit about. I had a terribly fun morning watching, and taking my camera to whatever I saw.

The experience with the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, foraging side by side, gave me an Idea for an illustration. I have actually felt the desire to do many illustrations comparing like species such as these two Picids. Perhaps soon I will begin a series to highlight like species and discuss similarities and differences between the two. It would surely help me learn many things.