A Devil Pecker… But Not Sure Which?

I’m a little off my schedule at the moment due to the little issue I had to take care of in the last post.  With that all past us now (and if you still think Linda isn’t the 2012 UB you need to go back and read the finely tuned analysis on the previous post), I can try to get through another entry in the Wisconsin Birds series.  This one is actually a bit of a mystery and hoping one of my fine readers can help me out a bit.  We were up on the cliff trail above Devil’s Lake when I heard a very familiar drumming a little ways into the woods (opposite cliff side).  I’ve been diligently searching for a Pileated Woodpecker without much luck so every time I hear that rattle I jump into search mode and start tracking.  Anyone watching me would have been trying to hold back a laugh.  Finding woodpeckers can be difficult in a dense forest – I swear their drumming echoes off of every try in the area.  Usually I walk to what appears to be the center point of the echoes and move my head in various directions looking for the the sharpest rattle position.. then walk a ways in that direction and repeat.  It looks stupid to onlookers, but it is effective.  After about 3 cycles of this I came upon this:

My initial guess through the viewfinder was a Downy Woodpecker.  Some doubt crept in as I was taking additional shots.  The most interesting aspect was the bird had a yellowish tint to it – most noticeable behind the head and on the breast below the legs.  Depending on how the light hit it, there seemed to be some yellow tint in the white areas on the back and wings.  We have numerous Downy’s where we live and I’ve have had a lot of opportunities to photograph them.  To my recollection, all of those Downy’s had very white highlighting and breast markings.  I tried changing positions to get a better shot of the head but that was difficult to do and still avoid all the branches.  The shot below was the best result, but a foreground branch managed to sneak in.  This shot, however, brought up an additional concern.  That beak is larger than most of the Downy’s around here which are smaller in relationship to the face.  They also look sharper than the one sported by this specimen.

Hit the jump to read more about this mystery bird.

So now I have two features that are shedding doubt on my initial identification.  There was still something missing but was unable to put my finger on it out in the field.  It wasn’t until post processing when it hit me.  Downy’s have a wide patch of white on their back from their neck to about halfway down.  If you take a quick gander at the first shot you will notice that this pecker is not showing that marking.  Instead it follows the broken white stripe pattern all the way up to the base of the neck.  Now I’m really curious.  Oh, before I forget, this bird had a larger build than all of our Downy’s but was not sure if that was just a result of a better environment in Wisconsin.  So, out came all of my reference books – the National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America and Sibley Guide to Birds.  Page after page was flipped starting with the Downy and then moving to the rest of the woodpeckers.  The closest matches did not have Wisconsin in their region mappings or showed a different marking – The Hairy sported the thicker white patch on their back, the Black-Backed and Three Toed had more solid wings, eliminated ones with red on the females, the Red-Cockaded had more white on the head and the Flicker heads didn’t match this specimen.  to be honest it was really only leaving the Nuttall’s and Ladder-Backed as the closest match.  The Nuttall’s range is very limited and far away from Wisconsin (California coastline).  That left the Ladder-Backed which does show some yellowish marking but the white striping is more solid.  Add in the fact it is more Texas and Mexico based and I’m left scratching my head.

The conclusion is I don’t know for sure.  Anybody want to take a stab at it?  The above shot gives a little better view of the face markings which is again Downy like but you will notice the beak is significantly larger than what that bird usually has.  Also note, the underbelly is not all white, but more spotted like the Ladder.  All I know is my eyes hurt from all the reading.  I did manage to shoot a Downy while I was up there (see below) which looks exactly like the ones down here.  Be sure and check the beak relationship to the head and the all white breast.  As mentioned previously, this one is also snow white without a yellowish tint.  The guides did mention that the male Downy and female Hairy are pretty similar if that helps any (it only helped me to rule out the Hairy too)

Since I cannot confirm what the first bird is I’ll have to just provide some interesting tidbits on the Downy.  According to our friends over at Wikipedia, they are very abundant across North America and cheaters since they’ll often take the easy way out and snatch food out of my feeders.  They are the smallest of the woodpeckers in North America and tend to stay around the area year round.  The guides mention that both the males and females juveniles sport a read splash on their heads which is absent in the adult female – strange that a juvenile would lose bright coloring – usually they mature into it.

This is definitely a mystery.  If you have any ideas, please share in the comments.  By the way, I did see my first Pileated Woodpecker in the wild up in the Porcupine Mountains during our summer vacation.  I still cannot check it off because I failed to get it in the tin (not even a fuzzy one), but at least I saw it – Linda double backed for me but by then it had escaped into the thick woods.  In due time, in due time it will be mine.

6 thoughts on “A Devil Pecker… But Not Sure Which?”

  1. Another thought… WHEN was this taken… I see no leaves, etc.. which may make it unlikely to be a juvenile if in January… Still would lean to the sapsucker… in the top shot you can almost see a “well” in the tree… Somewhat characteristic of this bird.

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  2. Interesting – never even considered the sapsucker. Based your excellent advice I plowed through the guides again to take a closer look. Per John’s question, this was taken this year on Easter Weekend so basically early Spring – if I remember it was still pretty cold out. The region mapping is definitely in line with where we were at and the back markings look pretty darn close. The thing that still bothers me is all three guides shoe the juvenile having a brown head and brownish breast which differs from my specimen, but as mentioned it may be transitioning out to adulthood – I also noticed both the male and the female have red on the head. I did noticed the following in Sibley which may hold the answer – interbreeding of the three [similar sapsuckers] where ranges overlap produces a small number of individuals not safely identified. Based on the two of you both coming up with Sapsucker coupled with the last comment is more than enough for me – Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker it is!! – really appreciate the help – especially since I think it’s a new bird to check off my list.

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  3. Thanks for the info, John. Your last link says the photo was taken on December 27, so maybe the birds are juveniles for a long time or something.

    Ron

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