Hotline Photos

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?

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Comments by:  Cliff Weisse, Kris Purdy, Mark Stackhouse (second), Tim Avery, Steve Carr

(E-mails from Cliff Weisse, 13 Apr 2010)

I'd like to add to Tim's comments, especially regarding 1st year YB/RN Sapsuckers. As far as molt timing goes, most Red-naped have molted out of juvenile plumage by the end of September while most Yellow-bellied will be in juvenile plumage through the winter. So a good rule of thumb is, any juvenile plumaged sapsucker after Oct 1st is probably a Yellow-bellied. It's not enough to just note juvenile plumage but it's a good indication that you should take a closer look.

In addition to molt timing the pattern of molt in the crown differs between species. Red-naped molts in red crown feathers from front to rear, Yellow-bellied molts these feathers randomly so the crown gradually gets red. So a mostly juvenile sapsucker with some red feathers scattered throughout the crown is a Yellow-bellied while one with red concentrated in the front will be a Red-naped.
The pattern of the juvenile crown also differs, uniformly dark brown in Red-naped and brown with tan or buffy streaks/spots on Yellow-bellied. The overall effect is that the crown of Red-naped is considerably darker but a close look will reveal the light/dark pattern of Yellow-bellied (Kaufman cautions in Advanced Birding that some YBSA can have a dark crown like RNSA).
Mark's wider supercilium field mark is also good for juveniles, with Yellow-bellied having a wider supercilium than Red-naped, reflecting the adult pattern. I've not seen anything that suggests overlap on this and I've never seen a Red-naped with a wide Yellow-bellied like supercilium. I have essentially no field experience with Yellow-bellied so I can't comment on variation in that species. Even if it's eventually shown that there is overlap here, it's still worth noting as a supporting field mark and extremes may well be diagnostic.

Not much has been said (or maybe I missed it) about the width and color of the rows of bars on the back. Although there is considerable variation and some overlap, Yellow-bellied tends to have more extensively white back, with wider rows of white bars or even a solidly barred back, while Red-naped usually has two narrow rows of bars. On Red-naped the white can be washed with yellow but the pale bars ten to be gold on Yellow-bellied. Color and pattern on back may not be diagnostic but can be an important supporting field mark and should be noted on any potential YBSA (both adults and juveniles).

The same can be said of the throat pattern on adults. There is variation but typical individuals will have the correct throat pattern for the species. It may not clinch the ID by itself but make sure you note the exact face/throat pattern.
Although some individuals may not be identifiable a careful analysis of all field marks should lead you to a solid ID in most cases.


(E-mails from Kris Purdy, 12 Apr 2010)

...I believe I found the controversial bird (the only sapsucker in the grove) due to its red nape and parsimonious amount of red on the throat relative to a typical Red-naped Sapsucker. My conclusion, which I'll share up front and then support, is that at best, the bird is a male Red-naped x Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and at worst, it's an atypical male Red-naped.

While it took me 45 minutes to find the bird (or more properly, for the bird to find me), after I finally saw it, I studied it from about 4-5:30 p.m. with a scope sometimes as close as 50 feet (17 of my paces) and only 18 feet high in an aspen, and with binoculars while standing only 30 feet away. The bird has made many wounds in a small aspen which it visited four separate times to lap the oozing sap. This was quite convenient as the branches are small enough not to cover the bird and it often gave me the Full Monty view--completely exposed frontal and then profile as I stood on pavement looking through the scope. Here's what I saw:

HEAD PATTERN: The crown, throat and nape were all red. The crown and throat were thoroughly red; I couldn't detect so much as one feather barb worth of white on the throat. The red of the throat spread slightly down onto the upper breast--not much. The nuchal patch was less red--slightly diluted. However, it was very obvious, still bright, and had I seen the color on a typical Red-naped, I wouldn't have thought it unusual. That patch of red completely interrupted the post-ocular white stripe that proceeds around the nape. There was no red whatsoever in the black postocular stripe below the white postocular stripe (basically the auricular area), and that black stripe was thicker than either white one. The combination of red throat and red nape favors Red-naped Sapsucker.

The white post-ocular stripe was VERY narrow from the eyes to the red nape--half the thickness of the white stripe draped over the base of the upper mandible and that spills down the sides of the head and neck and onto the upper breast. As the upper mandible white stripe proceeded down the side of the neck and bordered the black chest area, it became a small patch of bright golden yellow on both sides, and then became grayish tinted with pale yellow lower on the breast and belly. The bright golden yellow color was not visible unless the bird was somewhat alert, long and low, rather than relaxed, hunched, and high when roosting on a trunk. The narrowness of the white post-ocular stripe, thickness of the black stripe, and bright yellow favors the Red-naped.

The black frame around the red throat was highly changeable. Sometimes it was visible, very narrow and contiguous; sometimes it was ragged and uneven because the red feathers of the throat were mussed, and sometimes it was covered completely to the white stripe except for a bit of black at the base of the bill, and black where the corners of the upper black chest patch took over again. The visibility of that black border depended upon how the bird arranged its feathers; I could see it at its best, very narrow, after a feather fluffing. At no time did the red of the throat cover or even fleck the white stripe aft of the black border. This is a neutral factor. While a contiguous black border favors a Yellow-bellied, the border was extremely narrow and I believe, atypical for a Yellow-bellied.

CHEST PATCH: The black chest patch appeared to have slightly paler feather edges, giving a faint scalloped effect. It was subtle. I can't find any reference that mentions this. The size of the black chest patch might favor the Yellow-bellied due to the minimum amount of red that spilled down onto the extreme upper breast from the throat, but I'm not convinced about this without studying the feature on a lot more Red-naped. It's a relatively subtle feature.

BACK PATTERN: The two white mottled vertical stripes were relatively well-ordered and easy to discern. The white on the back was not messy, heavy or arranged in white horizontal barring rather than in two white vertical stripes. The white down the back was just that--white. With an arm twisting, I might hedge and say whitish, but nothing that could be called tinged with buff, golden-buff, yellow, or even cream. The white was white. The warmer colors I listed are more likely in a freshly molted bird (new feathers in both species' adults by October) and might not be significant giving the fading that has occured over the last six months; however, Yellow-bellied are more apt to have a stronger buff or yellow tinge. The color and pattern of the back favored a Red-naped.

I concluded the bird was a Red-naped or a hybrid because of the overall lack of pale color in multiple places (very narrow white post-ocular stripe, red nape instead of white, bright yellow in the white stripe down the side of the face instead of white, well-ordered back pattern with more apparent black than white). While I accept that the black border around the red throat sometimes looked contiguous, it was very narrow and seemed atypical of Yellow-bellied. I believe that every feature must fall into place to call a sapsucker far out of range a Yellow-bellied due to significant variation in the field marks of both the Yellow-bellied and the Red-naped, and the tendency for the two to hybridize and produce intermediate birds where their ranges overlap. Most of the characteristics of today's sapsucker favored the Red-naped...


E-mails from Mark Stackhouse, 12 Apr 2010)

...I don't know if this is the same bird that Bill reported (Bill will know more about that), but I'd have trouble calling this a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

My reasons are:

The red on the nape does appear to be quite strong - a fairly significant mark against YBSA. Although this is variable, and there can be YBSA with red napes, and RNSA without red napes, the latter is
much, much more frequent than the former. YBSA with red napes are very unusual. One with red this strong would be extremely unusual, and probably would indicate a hybrid at best.

I can't see the border on the throat well enough to judge clearly, but it doesn't seem to have as much of a complete black border as I would like to see on YBSA. In a couple of frames there seems to be red going through to the white, but again, I can't tell for sure from the photos. There doesn't seem to be any white on the chin, so presumably this is a male.

The back markings are quite white, but that's o.k. for RNSA. What's really important here is whether the white bars are divided in the middle into two halves or rows. In both of the pictures that show the
back, there's clearly a black rib running down the middle - exactly as would be expected for RNSA, but too well organized into two halves to suggest YBSA.

Another feature that I have noticed on (all?) the (male at least) YBSA that I have seen is that the white stripes on the face are quite heavy, and that the post-ocular stripe in particular is noticeably wider in YBSA than in RNSA. This bird has the narrow white post-ocular stripe that I would associate with RNSA. I haven't seen this mentioned in the literature, but have noticed it in all the cases I can remember seeing personally, and in the photos I've seen.

In summary, the field marks I can see from these photos all trend more towards RNSA than YBSA, and the one that might be in favor of YBSA is the one I can't see very well. Even if the throat patch is bordered completely in black, I think we would have to conclude that this was a hybrid individual at best, given all the markings to the contrary. Inasmuch as YBSA is the unexpected form here, it would seem more prudent to call this one a RNSA...


(E-mails from Tim Avery, 12 Apr 2010)

... A couple things to think about with sapsuckers in Utah. We have 2 breeders, the Williamson's of higher elevation spruce forests, and the Red-naped, which can pretty much be in any habitat with a riparian tract from the 4,500' elevation up (that elevation may seem low, and I am still scratching my head as I write this). Red-naped is by far the most common, and shows up here in northern Utah by about mid-April, and is all but gone form the northern reaches by mid-October. It does winter in the south, primarily Washington county. Washington County presents an interesting winter time trifecta of sapsucker goodness, when Red-naped are fairly common in riparian areas (and fruit groves I suspect in vicinity to riparian tracts), Red-breasted seem to wander in and can be hit or miss, and the occasional Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is present. Oh, and what about the hybrids? Red-naped X Red-breasted are probably more common than pure Red- reasted. And who in the heck know about Red-naped X Yellow-bellied--that's a river I don't even want to float down.

The wintering birds present the best chance at finding and identifying  a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--IF IT IS A 1ST WINTER BIRD. By the time most of our Red-naped birds have hit southern Utah in full swing, they are fading from 1st year, to adult plumage. Some likely hold that plumage into November. But Yellow-bellied, as I mentioned previously, keep that juvenile plumage through the winter until the following March. If you see a juvenile red-naped or yellow-bellied type sapsucker at Lytle Ranch in Dec, Jan, Feb, or Mar, there's a pretty good chance it's a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Of course looking closely at the field marks, taking pictures and studying others pictures of these birds can help a great deal. And as others have mentioned these types of back and forths always produce some good information.

Any bird that is considered an adult Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Utah should be heavily documented and photographed because nay-sayers like myself will ask why? Based simply off science, history, and known occurrence of said species in the state, along with the obvious plumage characteristics that are troubling--this is a tough ID. I think several people have said that, but its worth reiterating.

Lastly, the black border issue that people keep mentioning. This is a highly variable plumage trait in both species. In 2005 I photographed 3 or 4 individuals in various locations in Wyoming that all showed a completed black border surrounding a red throat, with faint red streaks in the nape. All these birds were photographed in June and July, making them breeders, and undoubtedly Red-naped Sapsuckers. Upon talking with several experts, who had access to Cornell and the Smithsonian's collections, I was rewarded with a photograph of a line of red-naped specimens showing how variable the throat pattern. And it is highly variable. Like many species of birds, there seems to be a wide range in this clade, that van make things fun and make us pull our hair out. Field guides show us an average representation of a species. A photographic guide, shows one particular individual. A drawn guide shows a creation based off a wide variety of studied specimens and photographs, giving the average looking bird. Not taking into account the variability of a species.

Whew! Mouthful is done. Here are some pictures to go along with this.  Check out the first link for Red-naped Sapsuckers. Look specifically at the ones with Wyoming locations in the descriptions:

And Yellow-bellied of course. Most of these are 1st years from southern Utah. But there is one nice adult from Wisconsin:

Good Birding

(E-mails from Steve Carr, 12 Apr 2010)

Mark mentions not seeing the particular feature (below) in the literature but actually seeing the broader white stripes in the face and occiput -- in the Handbook of Birds of the World, volume 7, pages 452-3, the authors of the description of the 2 sapsuckers do point out those variances, so they are apparently quite steady as field marks go.


[Kaufmann also shows this feature in Advanced Birding, Fig. 69, p. 175, but does not put words to it. -- Kris (Purdy)]

(E-mails from Mark Stackhouse, 12 Apr 2010)

Another feature that I have noticed on (all?) the (male at least) YBSA that I have seen is that the white stripes on the face are quite heavy, and that the post-ocular stripe in particular is noticeably wider in YBSA than in RNSA. This bird has the narrow white post-ocular stripe that I would associate with RNSA. I haven't seen this mentioned in the literature, but have noticed it in all the cases I can remember seeing personally, and in the photos I've seen.


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