Sunday, October 6, 2019

Juvenile Red Breasted Sapsucker

I photographed quite a few birds this summer, and I could figure out what most of them were either from recognition or using one of my many bird identification books.  This bird, however, had me stumped.  It was definitely a type of woodpecker; its size, habits, and body form all attested to that fact.  But what type?  It did not conform to any of the birds in any of my books.

It had a back like a hairy woodpecker, the head of a red-breasted sapsucker, and its underside had a yellowish hue to it.  What really stumped me was the eyering and the yellow cere, which woodpeckers with red heads don't have.  There are 23 species of woodpecker in North America, ranging from the Acorn Woodpecker to the Yellow-bellied sapsucker.  It was none of them.

It wasn't until today that I took time to hunt down which species it belonged to.  I decided that maybe it wasn't an adult, and started looking at websites with lots of woodpecker shots.  I finely came across a juvenile Red-breasted Sapsucker which looked similar to the one in the photo.  It had even less red on its head, but the yellowish cere and eyering were present.  When checking adults to my photo, the body was a close match.

One of the challenges I find with identifying birds is how their plumage changes.  Juveniles often look different from their parents, but the nearby caregivers usually remove any uncertainty.  Some birds take two or more years to come into their adult feathers; some gulls take a full four years.  Then there is the eclipse phase where the winter dress of an adult differs from its summer wear.  Add to that breeding versus non-breeding plumage, variation within a species, and interbreeding between some closely related species and you have a recipe for thorough confusion.

Fortunately, I find the process of identifying birds fairly straight forward most of the time.  Part of it is being familiar with them in general and knowing which birds to look for and which to ignore when checking field guides.  This too becomes an issue when irregular migrants show up, as they are not usually included in the books which only covers the local areas.  Imagine the trouble one would have with all these confounding parameters acting at the same time.  Perhaps then, it is a new species?  Birdus svendsoni.  Cool.

Thanks for reading.

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