Don't be Suckered by Sapsuckers

This image was taken in a Medford, Oregon yard on 16 November 2008. In the accompanying e-mail the observer was fairly certain his bird was a hybrid Red-naped Sapsucker X Red-breasted Sapsucker. He was correct. (photo by Gary Palmer using a Canon EOS 40D and a Canon 500mm f/4 IS lens with the 1.4x teleconverter)

Prior to being split by the American Ornithological Union (AOU) in 1985, Red-naped, Red-breasted, and Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were considered conspecific under the name Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Since this reclassification, birding journals and magazines have abounded with articles offering insights into the identification of these three Sphyrapicus sapsucker species and their hybrids. With the publication of each new edition of a popular field guide comes an ever-expanding array of illustrations depicting the variability within this super-species group. Despite all the effort to clear the air, at least once or twice a year I receive e-mails asking for help identifying attached images of troublesome sapsuckers. I’ve received two such e-mails recently, so I thought I would share the ID tips and elaborate on the responses that I sent to those who queried me about these birds.

In this photo, also taken on 16 November 2008, we get a better look at the pattern of red extending down the breast and the lack of a black breast “shield.” (photo by Gary Palmer using a Canon EOS 40D and a Canon 500mm f/4 IS lens with the 1.4x teleconverter)

Though superficially similar to an adult Red-naped Sapsucker — evidenced by the white supercilium (line above they eye) and broad mostly black auricular stripe (starting behind the eye) — there are several aspects of the above bird that tell us it is a hybrid Red-naped Sapsucker X Red-breasted Sapsucker. First, the red on the underparts extends from the throat well down onto the upper breast. Only Red-breasted Sapsucker (or a hybrid involving Red-breasted parentage) shows red this far down the breast. Red on the underparts is restricted to the throat area on the other two species. Secondly, there is no obvious black breast “shield,” which would normally frame the red throat patch on a pure Red-naped. We can rule out both subspecies of pure Red-breasted Sapsucker (S. r. ruber and S. r. daggetti) as neither shows the extensive black and white exhibited in the face pattern of this bird. It is worth pointing out that “pure” Red-naped Sapsuckers occasionally show some red bleeding through in the black-feathered areas, but they do not show red bleeding onto the white areas. As I understand it, red (carotenoid) pigmentation and black (melanin) pigmentation can both be present in different portions of the same head feathers of these two species, whereas white feathers result from the absence of these pigments (Johnson and Johnson 1985). Thus, without some genetic introgression from Red-breasted Sapsucker, there should not be any red feathering bleeding on to the white facial stripes.

Yellow-bellied, or Red-naped? This sapsucker was photographed at Frenchglen, Oregon on 8 November 2008. The date combined with the absence of red on the nape point to this bird being a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This identification is supported by several other factors (see below), most notably the amount of remaining golden brown juvenile plumage that is apparent in this picture. (photo by David Herr using a Canon EOS 50D camera and a Canon 600mm lens)

In the case of the sapsucker shown here, the observer was on the fence over whether this was an immature Red-naped or Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Historically, it was believed that hatch-year Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers retain their mostly brown and buffy plumage through their first fall and show no red on the crown until they molt on the wintering grounds. However, recent examinations of molt timing in this species suggests otherwise (Mlodinow et al. 2006). These authors found that some migrant hatch-year Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers collected north of presumed wintering grounds, showed red in the crown. A thorough search of museum specimens further revealed that all Red-naped Sapsuckers taken after 1 October showed some red on the nape and by late fall most Red-napeds were adult-like in appearance (Mlodinow et al. 2006).

This individual, photographed in November, shows no red on the nape and presents several plumage characteristics consistent with a hatch-year bird, all of which points away from this bird being a Red-naped Sapsucker. First, it still shows a lot of brown and buff tones in the overall plumage. By this date a Red-naped should look more black and white in appearance. Also, the crown is not solid red, rather it is well mottled with brown tipped feathers. Another important thing to look at is the face pattern. Generally speaking, the face of a Red-naped Sapsucker has a rather broad and nearly solid black auricular (behind the eye) stripe that is bordered above by a somewhat narrow white supercilium (above the eye) that tends to narrow anteriorly. Conversely, the dark auricular stripe on a Yellow-bellied is noticeably narrower and is often mottled with paler tipped feathers. The supercilium on Yellow-bellied is wider overall and tends to broaden a bit behind the eye. These differences account for the face of a Red-naped looking more dark than light, while the face of a Yellow-bellied tends to look more light than dark. Finally, the extensive light-colored mottling (buffy golden tones) across most of the back is a good supporting mark for Yellow-bellied, although there is some overlap in the extent of the light mottling on the backs of these two species.

This image shows a clear absence of red on the nape and the somewhat mottled red crown. (photo by David Herr using a Canon EOS 50D camera and a Canon 600mm lens).

Literature Cited:

Johnson, Ned K. and Carla Bowman Johnson, 1985. Speciation in Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus): II Sympatry, Hybridization, and Mate Preference in S. ruber daggetti and S. nuchalis.

The Auk 102:1 1-15. Mlodinow, Steven G., Jessie H. Barry, and Cameron D. Cox 2006. Variation in Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Birding 38:6 42-51.


Is there any way to identify what species of sapsucker left a particular drill pattern in tree bark. The drill patterns look the same to me, but has anyone identified any differences?


This is an excellent question and one I have not heard asked before. I suspect, given how closely related these species are, that there are no differences in the sap well shape or pattern they leave in trees. I made a quick search of Sibley’s Guide to Bird Life and Behavior and Cornell’s Birds of North America Online and neither source mentions any differences in this regard.

However, there are recognizable differences in their territorial drumming patterns, which can be very helpful when one is birding in the overlap zone of Red-breasted and Red-naped. Fellow teammates and I have often used these differences when scouting and locating territorial birds for big day efforts. The drumming pattern of Red-naped is a little faster in overall cadence, is slightly longer in duration and has a faster staccato series at the end.

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See also: Closer Look: The Embassy in Buena VistaBetween NE 42nd and 56th streets on Second Avenue, in the heart of Buena Vista, street lamps are scarce and potholes are plenty. Dingy markets contrast with the nearby upscale stores. But on the west side of the avenue, a restaurant row has sprung up with cuisines that bounce from French to Aegean to Japanese fusion. Intimate spaces, concise menus, and unfussy environs characterize the blithe, bohemian culinary vibe. It’s the kind of place to visit when reservations required South Beach or mustache optional Wynwood just won’t suffice. At Lemoni Caf families chatted over casual soups and sandwiches. Buena Vista Bistro buzzed with diners munching on escargots la proven and grouper with beurre blanc.But nearby at the Embassy, a self proclaimed gastropub that opened in December 2012, the setting was quiet and still. Through the windows, blue and black Arabic style lamps illuminated an elfin, mismatched dining room. Printed across a black chalkboard, menu listings included lamb ragout with spaetzle, duck egg with clams and chorizo, and a barbecued wild boar sandwich. Two forgotten glasses of red wine rested atop a wooden table.I pulled on the door’s handle, but it wouldn’t budge. There was no handwritten notice at the entrance or explanatory message on the answering machine. The restaurant was empty. The space was inexplicably closed.“We had an emergency,” Clickkeyword[Alan+Hughes]" >Alan Hughes, chef and owner of the restaurant, said the following day. “We didn’t even have time to leave a note.”Though he offered no further clarification, two things became clear: The weekend closure of Hughes’s restaurant raises questions about his business acumen. It also might denote an eccentric and occasionally erratic persona. (Indeed, the chef describes himself as an “international man of mystery” on his website.)He established himself in Miami and in 2001, along with his then wife Clickkeyword[Donna+Freeman]" >Donna Freeman, opened One Ninety, a space heralded as the first chef driven restaurant in the budding Buena Vista district. The funky vibe included eclectic cuisine, live music, and an ambiance studded with worn, dissimilar furnishings.“Some people say I was ahead of the game, but I was just doing what people craved,” he said. “I don’t claim credit for the area. It was really about the desire to go to a place like the one we did. We had a freaking 100 year old woman singing tango on some nights. We were authentic. We wanted fun, and that’s all [One Ninety] was.”Three years later, in 2004, Hughes’s landlord demanded a significant increase in rent. Despite a loyal following, the restaurant closed. During his hiatus from life as a restaurateur, the chef maintained a low profile and concentrated on catering and private gigs. In 2006, he reopened One Ninety in a seedier setting this time in Little Haiti. After about a year, the real estate crisis forced the second reincarnation out of business.Between 2008 and 2012, Hughes launched Luur, a setup of so called guerrilla dinners where he prepared tasting menus in his catering space by reservation only. Then, last year, he took a chance with his latest restaurant, the Embassy.Like One Ninety, the Embassy oozes a carefree vibe. Late night dining pairs with a varied schedule of live music. On any given evening, there might be rock ‘n’ roll, Cuban son, or jams performed by Hughes himself. There is no stage; musicians strum guitars in a tight corner of the dining room. As for the food, Hughes’s cooking still draws inspiration from around the globe.But some things are different from earlier days at One Ninety. “I didn’t want to do ‘the Alan Hughes comeback’ thing,” he says. “I’ve warned people that they aren’t going to get the full potential of my cuisine, just a version of it.”If that comment sounds like a preemptive excuse, it’s because it is. At the 40 seat restaurant, the menu changes weekly. A single page, titled “Menu of Small Bites,” lists fewer than 14 items. On my visits, two or three plates were sold out such as the duck egg and a brunch plate of house made duck sausage. Across the bar, four platters were arranged with pintxos, a type of skewered snack popular in northern Spain, particularly the Clickkeyword[Basque+Country]" >Basque country. One of the versions comprised a thick baguette slice topped with manchego cheese, serrano jam, shrimp, and a single olive. The open faced sandwich, held together by a toothpick, was tainted by brittle, hardened bread. Another rendition, layered with goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, fresh anchovies, and aptly toasted baguette, proved substantially more delectable.But the occasional tough pintxo is not the reason Hughes claims to be holding back on his full potential. The kitchen at the Embassy is equipped with only a fryer, an electric convection oven, and a small flattop. There is no open flame. Hughes practices cooking methods such as frying, braising, roasting, and baking. In the case of his small bites menu, those restrictions produce mixed success.See also: Closer Look: The Embassy in Buena VistaRich stewed tomatoes, topped with capers, black olives, and a buttered slice of baguette, enveloped a luscious, flaky fillet of corvina. Although the menu listed rouille as a component of the dish, the sauce composed of olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron, and chili peppers never arrived. It was unnecessary; the fish triumphed on its own. But paprika dusted braised rabbit, paired with a Greek yogurt stuffed roasted red pepper and flavorless Israeli couscous, was underseasoned. Like other dishes I sampled at the Embassy, such as the poached eggs with braised greens and warm black rice salad, the rabbit lacked the excitement in execution that it inspired in concept.Still, despite its flaws, the cuisine resonates with a comfortable, unfinicky charm.“When I decided to open the Embassy, I knew I was going to get some hard reviews,” Hughes said. “But I don’t care what they say. This is a little experiment. This is just my neighborhood bar.”Like its owner, the Embassy is eclectic, imperfect, funky, and erratic. Some evenings, the music is weird, the food underseasoned, and the bread tough. But nights when Wynwood feels too artsy or the Design District seems too snazzy, Hughes’s latest venture in Buena Vista is a hip, fascinating, and delightful place to visit.
Christian Louboutin

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