To refresh your memory, here is the photo from October’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in Colorado during the month of October. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
While you can’t see much of the bird, it’s clearly clinging to a tree trunk. Add in the posture and the structure of the foot, and we know this is some sort of woodpecker.
That was the easy part.
Grabbing a field guide and turning to the section on woodpeckers, we find that 22 species are present in North America. Where do we begin? Being October, it could be a bird in juvenile plumage, and we don’t know the sex yet, either. Keep that in mind as we go along.
Let’s start by looking through the guide. We learn that not all woodpeckers have black and white patterning on their backs, so we can eliminate them. Several species of woodpecker have a definite horizontal striped pattern on their back, but ours is more mottled. We cross off Gila, Golden-fronted, Red-bellied, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. Let’s also skipthose that are far out of range, although as we know, birds can and do get around. If nothing local works, we can always go back and try for a rarity.
At this point, that leaves us with two Sapsuckers, Red-naped, and Yellow-bellied (Red-breasted Sapsuckers are not normally found anywhere near Colorado), and Downy, Hairy, and American Three-toed Woodpeckers.
Both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have a central white patch on their back. Our bird does not. Some Three-toed Woodpeckers have a similar white back, but others appear more mottled. No help there. We can try to count the toes—are there three, or four? But with the marks on the tree trunk, we can’t really tell if we’re seeing a fourth toe. However, both sapsuckers have a prominent white stripe on their side, a feature lacking in the Three-toed. Do you see a stripe on the bird in the photo above? Yup, me too. It’s a sapsucker.
Now for the really tricky part.
Both Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are uncommon, but occur in Colorado. The former spend their summers in the mountains among the aspens, but during migration they can hang out in streamside willows and cottonwoods. The latter pass through during migration, with a few spending the winter at lower elevations east of the mountains (especially in the Arkansas River valley). Colorado is the one place where these two species’ ranges overlap. Making things even more difficult, the birds can hybridize.
I pulled out the two field guides I own. Sibley shows the sapsuckers from the side, so we can’t get a good feel for their back coloration. National Geographic does too, and doesn’t show the entire female. Frustrating! Clearly, both guides expect you to ID the bird from the extent of the red coloring on the throat—but this woodpecker was intent on its wood pecking, and refused to turned around and give me the view I needed. The guides claimed that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are the lighter of the two, with slightly less black overall. Not having both species at hand, I couldn’t tell if this was a light or dark bird.
I was stuck. I didn’t feel too bad—ornithologists thought these sapsuckers were the same species for most of the last century! However, the expert birders with me had no trouble quickly agreeing on the bird’s ID. What were they seeing that I was not?
This is when it’s really handy to have a camera! I managed to get a few additional photos, including one last one of the bird flying away. It’s blurry, but you can see field marks we hadn’t been able to see up to that point.
With photos, I was able to continue my ID process when I got home. I thought I was seeing a white chin, as with a Red-naped, and a complete black border on the throat, as with a Yellow-bellied. I needed to learn more.
Turning to the internet, I found two detailed discussions on how to tell these species apart. Both articles were highly technical and centered on the amount of red and black on the face and throat, and whether the black created an open or close frame around the red. If you want to read them, they’re here and here.
After reading both articles, I admit that I gave up. I simply listed the bird as “Sapsucker sp.” My “power birder” companions had been quite sure the bird was a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and they’re usually right, but I just couldn’t see it.
All this goes to show that you can’t confidently ID every single bird you see. There’s a reason that sites such as iBird have categories such as “Canada/Cackling Goose” and “Empid sp.” Even if we don’t know a bird’s name, we can still appreciate it. Perhaps that’s what really matters.