Big Day for the Friends of the Red Knot

Arriving in a flurry of activity, there is a great deal of chatter as the small flock arrives along the Delaware Bay. Here for just a short time, they must fill up as quickly as possible while in Delaware, taking advantage of the bounty before them. Thus began the Big Day adventure for the Friends of the Red Knot (FoRK), a group of young conservationists (ages 8 to 12) dedicated to protecting the endangered shorebird. Piling out of a minivan, four sets of bright eyes and sharp ears made ready for an avian adventure.  


Mike, Mica, Gail, Judy, and Bill watch a Prairie Warbler, while Emily and Maria search for the birds in the bushes.

Mike, Emily, Mica, and Maria arrived at 8:00am on May 9 from their homes near Baltimore, Maryland, supported by parent leader Gail Hudson. Their mission: take part in a Big Day as part of the third annual Delaware Bird-A-Thon. Last year’s effort netted an impressive tally of 102 species, and they were ready to beat that record! 

These youth had a stable of veteran Delaware birders to guide them: Bill Stewart, Judy Montgomery, and myself, all officers of the Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS). We are also leaders of the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birders Club (, and jump at any chance to take kids afield and show them some great birds!  Put twelve hours on the clock, we are going for a whirlwind bird tour!

To begin a Big Day, you need to hit the supermarket first.  I’m not talking about a store.  I mean a place with one-stop shopping for a wide variety of birds to fill your Big Day bag quickly. Milford Neck Wildlife Area fits this bill:  a mix of pine forest, deciduous woods, thickets, meadows, freshwater impoundments, tidal creeks, and brackish bay. Lots of diverse habitat equals lots of bird species.
Within minutes of beginning our birding spree at a brushy field, the cart filled up with great finds: brilliant Indigo Buntings, flashy Prairie Warblers, talkative Yellow-breasted Chats, and a young Bald Eagle spinning circles in the sky.  Moving to nearby woodlands, the songs of Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Acadian Flycatcher, and Yellow-throated Warbler greeted our ears.

While driving to our next stop (with windows down, of course!), our ears caught the twitter of warbler calls. Soon the bright colors of a Magnolia Warbler, Northern Parula, and American Redstart came to light amidst the newly leafed-out treetops. The warblers thrilled the crowd, as did a Great-crested Flycatcher that posed for views in the spotting scope.

At Big Stone Beach, the kids ran for the sand. As far as the eye could see, the brown forms of horseshoe crabs carpeted the water’s edge. Caught up in their spring spawning ritual, these ancient creatures provide the millions of eggs that help fuel the Red Knot and other shorebirds for their migration to Arctic nesting grounds.


Maria and Emily investigate a pair of Horseshoe Crabs on Big Stone Beach, Delaware. The smaller male crab fertilizes the large female's clusters of eggs. As many as 25,000 pearly eggs may be laid at a time. Migratory shorebirds depend upon the fat-rich eggs to fuel their flight to the Arctic breeding grounds. 

An engaging game of “help the horseshoes” ensued, as Emily and Maria led the charge to flip over stranded crabs and return them to the water. In short order, a quarter-mile of beach became barren as the children hoisted crabs back into the bay to await the next high spawning tide. Black Skimmers, Double-crested Cormorants, and swarms of Laughing Gulls passed by while we helped the crabs. After much fun at the beach, we headed south to the next hotspot. Mike tallied the checklist, and in three short hours, we’d already observed 85 species!  Shopping for birds at Milford Neck proved productive! 

The road into Mispillion Harbor bore its usual bounty of buzzing Seaside Sparrows, flashy Willets, and noisy Clapper Rails. A giant Red Knot statue greeted us at the DuPont Nature Center ( at Mispillion Harbor Reserve. Would we see his feathered likenesses? No need to worry— the real Red Knots flew about the harbor in small flocks, along with Semi-palmated Sandpipers, Dunlins, and Black-bellied Plovers. The deck of the nature center is the best place in the world to view Red Knots, and we savored looks at these remarkable shorebirds freshly-arrived after a non-stop flight from Argentina. 

The marsh at Fowler Beach teemed with shorebirds, including more Red Knot and the similar-colored Short-billed Dowitchers. A lingering hen Bufflehead made it onto the list, tying last year’s record of 102 species. On the nearby viewing platform, we posed for photos overlooking the beachfront habitat that previous Bird-A-Thon funds helped purchase.

Birding around Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, the new birds kept coming:  a surprise flock of Snow Geese, lingering Blue-winged Teal, and a brilliant Prothonotary Warbler. On a tip from a birding friend, we found a beautiful red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl peering from a hollow tree. The tiny owl regarded us with wide yellow eyes, not knowing he’d just made it onto four kids’ life lists.


An inquisitive red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl peers down at an excited group of birders who are delighted to see an owl during daylight!

As evening approached, there remained one key stop with a cast of still-needed birds. Abbott’s Mill Nature Center’s diverse floodplain woodlands hold a bounty of birds, and we stole looks at Eastern Phoebes, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Belted Kingfisher, and finally, an Eastern Towhee.

For the grand finale, I wound up my vocal cords and unleashed my best Barred Owl imitation. The first owl materialized in a pine tree, followed shortly by its mate. “Who-cooks-for-you-all?” queried the curious raptors, and Emily and Maria answered with their best husky hoots.  

The clock struck 8:00pm and the owls continued calling. Our whirlwind birding day came to a close and you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces with a whole bottle of lens cleaner. The Friends of the Red Knot rang up an incredible total of 116 species of birds on their shopping list, and enjoyed a feast of bird life during twelve hours in Delaware.  Aren’t we always hungry for more birds? 


In 12 hours afield, the Friends of the Red Knot observed 116 species of birds and experienced a banner day of birding for conservation. Their efforts earned them top honors in the Youth Team category of the Delaware Bird-A-Thon.

A month after the great Big Day adventure, the FoRK team found out they had won the Bird-A-Thon Youth Team category, by raising over $1,000 for conservation. The Delaware Bird-A-Thon achieved a landmark by raising over $45,000 this year, surpassing $100,000 total for its first three years.  Supporters from across the United States, and as far away as Ireland and New Zealand contributed generously to the cause. As always, the money will go towards protecting vital migratory shorebird habitat and educating the public about bird conservation.

In order to make the event a success, it takes the efforts of a caring and concerned global birding community. The Red Knot is just one of many bird species in need of our help. Wherever you live, you can make a difference for the birds you love. As the Delaware Bird-A-Thon motto says, “Birding for Conservation Makes Cents.” 

Derek Stoner is President of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, coordinator of the Delaware Dunlins Youth Birders Club, and an environmental educator for the Delaware Nature Society.

Woodpecker Wonderland Festival: A Labor of Love

Organizing and leading bird tours is hard and occasionally thankless work. I learned long ago that dealing with folks who are paying for a recreational experience presents a special set of challenges. It's funny how we expect perfection during our leisure time even though most of us will readily admit that life is an exercise in imperfection. If one wants to learn how to run a successful bird festival, they need to look no further than the Woodpecker Wonderland Festival (WWF).

Based at the historic Camp Sherman resort community east of the Santiam Pass in Oregon's central Cascades, the WWF is the brainchild of Steve Shunk, who is a fanatic about woodpeckers and is also the owner of a birding tour company, Paradise Birding. On the high-elevation slopes east of the Cascades crest, the forests are made up of dense stands of a variety of firs, spruce, and pines. Moving downslope, the forest opens up and is dominated by Ponderosa Pines. It then transitions to the even drier juniper/sage and then shrub-steppe vegetation communities of the high desert. The narrow riparian strips that border the countless small streams in the area are populated by aspens, a favored nesting tree of many woodpecker species. Fire events, typically caused by lightning strikes, are frequent in this rain shadow landscape, where summer precipitation is negligible. This combination of factors makes Oregon’s central Cascades a haven for woodpeckers. Eleven species of piciformes occur here regularly, a tally that cannot be matched anywhere else in North America.  


Much of the forest near the summit of Santiam Pass has been burned by a series of recent fires. Openings, like this one at Cache Lake, attract species like Mountain Bluebird and Lazuli Bunting and of course, lots of woodpeckers.

In addition to Steve's boundless enthusiasm for woodpeckers, this festival benefits from an amazing local birding community that is equally enthusiastic about promoting the spectacular local birding opportunities. Many of the volunteer leaders are heavily involved in the East Cascades Bird Conservancy. Formed in 2002, the ECBC is a relatively young, but  vibrant organization that seems to add activities and projects on a weekly basis. They offer regular field trips, organize work parties to maintain local birding sites, coordinate a fall hawkwatch station at nearby Green Ridge, sponsor a state-wide winter raptor survey, and monitor three study areas where they have built and placed nest boxes for Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Currently, they are working on enhancing site guides and maps for the Cascades Birding Trail. 


Woodpecker Wonderland Festival organizer Steve Shunk (right) shows off a jumping spider he found during the Sunday afternoon trip.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s second annual Woodpecker Wonderland Festival (June 5-7, 2009), prospective leaders and other local birders spent many man-hours scouting the field trip routes for active nest holes of the region’s eleven woodpecker species. They also paid close attention to other species that might be “target” birds for birders coming to the festival from out of the area. The festival offered a variety of half-day field trips on Friday, both half-day and full-day trips on Saturday, and half-day trips on Sunday morning. These trips were limited to eight participants and two leaders per 12-passenger van. 


With modest-sized groups it's much easier to make sure everyone gets to see the bird. In this image our Saturday trip hones in on a male Lazuli Bunting.


Food for the Woodpecker Wonderland Festival was catered by the Lodge at Suttle Lake. They even provided an assortment of sandwiches to take along on all-day trips. During this break at Scout Lake, we enjoyed a delicious lunch, beautiful weather, and most importantly an opportunity to talk about something other than birds.

As a visiting leader (I live 100 miles to the west in Eugene, Oregon), all I had to do was show up and jump in a van each morning. I can’t recall enjoying leading field trips more. It was great to spend one-on-one time with trip participants, teaching them calls, offering identification pointers, and getting to know them on a personal level. I talked about birding the Apalachicola National Forest and seeing my life Limpkin at Lake Munson with Ed from Tallahassee, Florida, for whom these fabulous birding sites are a short drive from home. Amanda, who grew up in southern Indiana, and I discussed funny figures of speech I learned while living in central Indiana. I spent several minutes with Kevin, a comparative local who lives 30 miles up the road at Crooked River Ranch, taking pictures of an adult Northern Goshawk and talking about photography--at that pursuit, Kevin is an expert and I’m a neophyte. 


This adult Northern Goshawk was surprisingly accommodating considering that its nest was only a couple hundred yards away from this perch. We took a few shots and moved along.

When we stopped by the home of one of the local birders in hopes of seeing the flock of Pinyon Jays that visits regularly, he and his wife welcomed our group onto the second story deck of their home, giving us a bird’s-eye view of their feeders. The Pinyon Jays never appeared, but the visiting birders  surely arrived home telling stories about the hospitality they enjoyed on their trip to Oregon. This wouldn’t have happened if we were leading around a busload of birders, instead of small groups. 

The last of the scheduled field trips ended around noon on Sunday, and it was then that the most impressive field trip of the weekend took place. Throughout the weekend several leaders made it known that they would stick around Sunday afternoon and assist anyone still looking for one of the woodpecker species. I joined the two vanloads of birders who gathered for the ad hoc Sunday afternoon trip. I was mostly interested in seeing some areas that I’d never visited and hanging out with those leaders who had been on other field trips. We organized and routed this trip on the fly. Our goal was to see that every participant completed the “Wonderland Slam” (getting all 11 species for the weekend).


This stop at Dry Creek produced Black-backed and White-headed woodpeckers, which were life birds for at least a couple of the folks who stuck around for the Sunday afternoon trip. During this four-hour trip we encountered 10 of the 11 species of woodpeckers that regular occur in this area. Our only miss...Downy Woodpecker.

In just a few hours we tracked down all three sapsuckers (Williamson’s, Red-breasted, and Red-naped), Northern Flicker, plus Lewis’s, Black-backed, American Three-toed (saw a pair copulate), White-headed, Hairy, and Pileated woodpeckers. Several in the group picked up life birds as we made our way to several staked-out nest trees. In addition to the woodpeckers, any and all requests for other target birds were at least entertained and in some cases realized. By 5:00PM on Sunday night there were no unsatisfied customers!


On a clear day, the central Oregon Cascades offer a stunning panorama of snow-capped peaks, including Mt. Washington, which is shown in this image.

In two short years this festival has already created a “can-do” culture, where the leaders seem to enjoy showing folks life birds as much as those who are getting lifers enjoy seeing a species for the first time. One woman on my Saturday field trip told me that this is “one of her favorite birding festivals”--high praise for a brand new festival.

All photos taken by Dave Irons

Sapsucker ID Challenge: The Answer and More

While the varius complex sapsuckers (Red-breasted, Red-naped, and Yellow-bellied) continue to vex some observers, it is clear that the respondents to this photo quiz were on the right track. The hints provided by Greg Gillson likely put folks on the path to correctly identifying this bird. As he suggested, determining the sex was a key element.

I took these pictures at “Calliope Crossing” along Indian Ford Creek north of Sisters, Oregon on 7 June 2009. Location alone (not shared in the quiz) tells us that this bird is likely a Red-naped Sapsucker, which along with Red-breasted Sapsucker are the expected species in the central Oregon Cascades. Although this locale is near the epicenter of the hybrid zone of Red-naped and Red-breasted sapsuckers, this bird shows no evidence of being a hybrid. There is no bleeding of red feathering into the auriculars and the red on the underparts is entirely constrained to the throat.

As is often the case when one is focused on photography, I failed to look at this bird closely in the field. Upon returning home and downloading my images from the weekend, I was momentarily taken aback by the apparent lack of red on the nape of this bird. “Did I somehow overlook a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker?” flashed through my brain. However, I quickly realized that aside from the absence of red on the nape, this bird looked like a typical adult female Red-naped Sapsucker.


This close-up shows the closed throat frame--created by the black malar stripe connecting to the black breast shield--which borders a mostly red throat and white chin. This combination of features is typical of female Red-naped Sapsuckers. Female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have an all-white throat and chin and only rarely show a small amount of red in the throat.

                                                                                                                                                                                  How do we know that this is an adult female? We can safely presume that this bird is an adult because it is carrying food to nestlings in image #1 (see enlargement below). As for sexing the bird, if you look closely at the chin (area immediately below the bill) of this bird, it is white (shown well in images #1 and #2). In both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers, male birds have an entirely red chin and throat area. Although on rare occasions adult female Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers show limited red on the throat  (Mlodinow et al. 2006), they typically show an all-white throat. Conversely, adult female Red-naped Sapsuckers have a mostly red throat and limited white that is mostly restricted to the chin. The throat and chin pattern of this bird is just right for an adult female Red-naped.


In addition to providing another perspective on the closed throat frame, this image shows the narrow white supercilium and the black dominant face pattern of this Red-naped Sapsucker. Also note the orangish area in the white feathering on the nape (also visible in the image above). This is a remnant of the red nuchal patch that has likely disappeared due to feather wear. Red-naped Sapsucker molt after the breeding season and before fall migration, so this bird is near the end of its plumage cycle, when feathers are most worn.

Further examination of these images reveals other aspects of the plumage that support this identification. One of the things I look at in comparing Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers is the balance of black and white in the face pattern (see “Don’t Be Suckered by Sapsuckers in this journal 23 December 2008). I find that the faces of Red-naped Sapsuckers look more black than white, while the light areas are more dominant in the faces of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The white supercilium (line above and behind the eye) is noticeably thinner in Red-naped than it is in Yellow-bellied. Similarly, the white moustachial stripe, which starts above the bill and forms the border below the black auriculars (cheek patch) is also a bit thinner in Red-naped.  The black auriculars usually look more extensive on Red-naped as a result. Mlodinow et al. (2006) also noted this difference, but cautioned that viewing angle must be taken into account when evaluating this feature.  To my eye, this bird has a facial pattern that is black dominant.


This enlargement of the head shows the mostly black head and face pattern from a slightly different angle. It also offers a better view of the remnant orangish feathering on the nape.

Back pattern and coloration, though highly variable, also offer clues to the identity of these sapsuckers. As a rule, Red-naped Sapsuckers show less white or light colored barring than Yellow-bellieds on their otherwise black backs. Typically, a narrow trough of unbarred black separates two broader troughs of white barring. On Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the horizontal barring usually extends across the entire back with no unbarred black trough down the middle. None of the three images presented here show the back pattern well, but the amount of unbarred black on the sides of the back and wing coverts are suggestive of Red-naped. Also, note that the barring on this bird is white. On Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, the horizontal back barring is most often buffy or somewhat golden and not clean white.


This image shows the clean white barring on the back and the large lateral margin of unbarred black on the side of the back. In all plumages, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers show more extensive barring extending all the way across the back and the barring is typically buffy or slightly golden in color.

Some might still be asking about the two features on this bird. First, where is the red nuchal patch for which Red-naped Sapsucker is named? Second, the throat frame—the black that borders the throat—appears complete with no break at the corners of the throat. One of the limitations of standard fields guides is that there is insufficient space to show the full range of variations in these species and in other cases the illustrations are incorrect. In listing the characteristics of these two species Shunk (2005) notes that both sexes of Red-naped Sapsucker may “show limited or no red on the nape.” In all three images of the quiz bird (particularly #2) there appear to be a few orange/red-tipped feathers in the white area on the nape, but they are not obvious at first glance. Sadly, none of the popular field guides illustrate this variation and only Sibley (2000) offers text suggesting that the red on the nape may be absent. All specimens of Red-naped Sapsuckers taken 1 Oct-1 May had red on the nape (Mlodinow et al. 2006), hence they concluded that feather wear late in the plumage cycle (during the breeding season) accounts for birds lacking red nuchal patches.

Field guides have also created two other misconceptions. I pulled an assortment of field guides off my shelf and found these issues. Until fairly recently one of the major field marks often used in separating Yellow-bellied and Red-naped sapsuckers was the throat frame. All books correctly depict a closed throat frame—the black malar connects to the black breast shield—in both male and female Yellow-bellieds. Male Red-naped Sapsuckers show a break in the throat frame at the corners because the black malar stripe does not wrap around the throat and connect with the black breast shield. Thus, this is a useful field mark when dealing with adult males. Surprisingly, Peterson’s 3rd addition Western Guide (1990) shows a male Red-naped with a close throat frame, something I’ve never seen.

Equally misleading is the illustration of the adult female Red-naped Sapsucker that appears in the 4th edition National Geographic Guide (and all preceding editions). It depicts an open throat frame. Shunk (2005) and Sibley (2000) correctly point out and illustrate that female Red-napeds have a closed black throat frame, which is the case with our quiz bird. During their research, Mlodinow, Barry, and Cox found that 100% of the female Red-naped museum specimens they looked at had closed throat frames (Mlodinow pers. comm.). Note that there may be a bit of white mottling (shown in image #1) at the corners of the black throat frame.

The second issue with some field guides is their depiction of the nape pattern on Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Both the 3rd edition Peterson Western Guide (1990) and the 4th edition National Geographic Guide incorrectly show adult Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers with their lateral black crown stripes (above the supercilium bordering the red crown) connecting across the hind crown and then extending solidly down the middle of the  nape and hind neck. In both Yellow-bellied and Red-naped sapsuckers the white supericilia wrap around and connect across the nape just below the black hind crown. This creates a break in the black on back of the head and neck, which are not solidly black as depicted in the Peterson and National Geographic field guides. In adult Red-naped there will be varying amounts red tipped feathering where the white connects across the nape. Mlodinow et al. offer a dorsal comparison of several specimens (Fig. 5) that shows the nape pattern of these two species.

The purpose of this exercise was to illustrate and discuss the variability that can and usually does occur within a given species. While field guides are generally helpful, they are not comprehensive. There is no replacement for time in the field studying individual birds and learning the subtle variations a species may exhibit. Taking pictures of the birds you see and studying them after the fact can also be helpful. However, I support the notion that it is best to observe and identify a bird before trying to photograph it, as opposed to shooting pictures first and asking questions later.  

Literature Cited:

Mlodinow, Steven G., Jessie H. Barry, Cameron D. Cox. 2006. “Variation in Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.” Birding 38:6 pp. 42-51.

National Geographic Society. 2002. Field Guide to the Birds of North America 4th edition. National Geographic Society. Washington D.C.

Peterson, Roger Tory. 1990. A Field Guide to Western Birds. Houghton Mifflin Co. New York, N.Y.

Shunk, Stephen A. 2005. “Sphyrapicus Anxiety: Identifying Hybrid Sapsuckers.” Birding 37:3 pp. 288-298.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Chanticleer Press Inc. New York, N.Y.

Nest-o-rama: Woodpecker Wonderland Festival 2009

When I volunteered to help lead field trips for the 2009 Woodpecker Wonderland Festival ( along the east slope of Oregon's central Cascades I fully expected to see lots of active woodpecker nest holes. I was not disappointed. Local leaders had been scouting for weeks in an effort to find active nests for all eleven species that occur in the area. However, I was wholly unprepared for the number of nests of other species that our groups would find.


This Western Wood-Pewee nest, found north of Sisters, Oregon, was the first of four that our tour groups found on 7 June 2009 (three at this site). All were similarly placed, resting on a forked branch.

On Sunday morning Jeff Harding and I led a group of eight festival participants to "Calliope Crossing" north of Sisters, Oregon. In addition to relocating a known Calliope Hummingbird nest, we found the nests of three pairs of Western Wood-Pewees, two pairs of Warbling Vireos, and single nests of Red-breasted Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee. We also found active Hairy Woodpecker and Red-naped Sapsucker nests. After leaving this area, we found three Pygmy Nuthatch nests and another Western Wood-Pewee nest. 


This Warbling Vireo puts the finishing touches on its nest at "Calliope Crossing" north of Sisters, Oregon. It stopped a couple of times to settle down into the nest as if to test the fit. A good way to find a Warbling Vireo nest is to listen for a bird that is singing constantly, but never moves. Warbling Vireos regularly sing while sitting on their nests.


This Pygmy Nuthatch is returning to its nest hole with food for hungry nestlings, whose high-pitched begging calls could be heard from up to 30 meters away.

Over the course of the weekend our groups saw the active nests of 8 of the 11 species of woodpeckers that occur in the central Oregon Cascades including: Lewis's Woodpecker, Williamson's Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker.


This male Williamson's Sapsucker plays "peek-a-boo" from its nest hole located about 40 feet up in a large Ponderosa Pine snag.


The discolored bark below this Hairy Woodpecker nest hole is one of the tell-tale signs of an active woodpecker nest. White-barked aspens, like this one near Sisters, Oregon, are one of the most popular host trees for the woodpeckers that nest in the central Oregon Cascades. The constant comings and goings of the adults wear the bark. Note the darker green zig-zagging abrasions at the bottom of the smudged area. This is where the spiky tail feathers come to rest when the woodpeckers land before entering the nest hole. 


First place for coolest nest discovery of the weekend goes to Greg Gillson, who found this Pacific-slope Flycatcher nest tucked in a rock crevice about 4 feet above the Metolius River at Canyon Creek Campground north of Camp Sherman, Oregon.

While finding and documenting nests and nesting activities is fun and essential in monitoring the health of bird populations, it is important to remember to avoid spending too much time near active nest sites. Human presence may stress the adults and also prevent them from returning to feed nestlings at regular intervals. During the nesting season, be conscious of adult birds that are following you about and chipping or calling in an agitated manner. Such behaviors are a good sign that you are too close to a nest or recently-fledged young.

All photos taken by Dave Irons

Sapsucker ID Challenge

One of the earliest posts to the journal involved the discussion of sapsucker ID. "Don't Be Suckered by Sapsuckers" was published on 23 December 2008. That piece includes several pointers that might help you this time around. Formerly, three of the four species Sphyrapicus sapsuckers--Yellow-bellied, Red-naped, and Red-breasted--were treated as a single species (Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). Hybridization, molt, and feather wear results in many sapsuckers that don't seem to match up with the illustrations in your favorite field guide. Of course it would be impossible for a field guide to illustrate every potential intergrade that might result from the crossing and back-crossing that occurs in the sizeable overlap in the ranges of Red-breasted and Red-naped sapsuckers. However, even presumed "pure" birds can leave you scratching your head if your sole source of information is one of the popular field guides.

Below, you will find three pictures of just such a sapsucker. This bird exhibits multiple field marks that might be considered ambiguous. However, if one examines these images closely, this bird can be identified and even sexed based on what can be seen in these three pictures. We will open up the debate on this bird for a couple days before posting a thorough discussion about its plumage. To avoid providing any clues to identity of this bird, we will not share where this series of photos was taken. We encourage your comments on this bird. When offering your thoughts (via our "comments" box) please reference the images numbers that are found in the captions.


Image #1


Image #2


Image #3

Role Reversal: A Closer Look At Wilson's Phalaropes

Across much of the animal kingdom, males are significantly larger than their female counterparts. Further, they assume the responsibility of establishing and defending a territories and are the pursuers in the mate selection process. In many cases they play little if any role in the upbringing of their offspring.

Sexual dimorphism and gender specific behavior patterns also exist in the bird world, with a few twists. Although size differences aren’t usually apparent, in various species, most notably raptors and some shorebirds, females are, on average, larger than males. Additionally, male birds are typically more brightly colored. Through singing and chasing off intruders, they mark and defend the bounds of breeding territories. Finally, male birds typically vie for mating rights, thus it is not unusual to see multiple males pursuing the same female. Even after a pair bond is established, shunned males will occasionally continue to follow the mated pair about for days. A birding friend of mine refers to such threesomes as "a pair and a spare."


Unlike most bird species, the female (right) Wilson's Phalarope is more brightly colored and boldly patterned than the male (left). Females are also up to 25% larger in terms of overall mass. Also note the predominantly brown upper parts of the male, which provide better camouflage when he is on the nest.

One group of shorebirds—the phalaropes—is a rarity among North American birds in that all of the typical rules of size, coloration, mate selection, and parental duties do not apply. Two of the three phalarope species (Red and Red-necked) are nearly circumpolar in their distribution and are strictly Arctic breeders. Across much of North America, Red and Red-necked phalaropes are infrequent to rare mid-continental migrants. Outside the nesting season, they spend most of their time at sea.

Conversely, the range of Wilson’s Phalarope is restricted to the New World. They breed in freshwater wetlands from the Upper Midwest west to the Puget Trough and the southern Oregon coast (limited sites) and from northern Alberta south to the Great Basin. Since Wilson's breeds in areas that are readily accessible to birders and migrates overland, mostly west of the Mississippi River, it is the familiar phalarope for most American and Canadian birders.

In addition to being about 25% smaller (Colwell and Jehl 1994), male Wilson’s Phalaropes have comparatively cryptic plumages, lacking the bright colors and patterns shown by females.  Unlike most birds, phalaropes do not establish a territory before courtship. Females compete with one another for the right to breed with a single male.


Here is another image of the same pair in the photo above. It better accentuates the structural differences between the rather plump and bulky female (right) and the more slender almost dainty-looking male (left). As shown in this picture, male Wilson's Phalaropes usually look smaller-headed and thinner-necked than females.

Once mated, a pair copulates and then creates several potential nest "scrapes," one of which is ultimately chosen by the female shortly before she begins laying (Klima and Jehl 2003). This pair bond is often quite short; pairing and egg-laying are typically completed within 7-10 days (Colwell and Jehl 1994). After clutch completion, the eggs are incubated by the male while the female moves on (often within a day), sometimes to mate with other males. The original male is left to hatch the eggs and tend to the needs of the brood. Young Wilson’s Phalaropes are able to leave the nest almost immediately after hatching. In areas where multiple broods are present, groups of males are known to work cooperatively to protect their offspring from predators (Klima and Jehl 2003).


Here's a closer look at female (above) and male (below) Wilson's Phalaropes.


This curious role reversal has motivated much study of phalaropes, particularly the more accessible Wilson's Phalarope. In his 1997 book “Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of  Human Sexuality” renowned author Jared Diamond offers an insightful chapter entitled “Battle of the Sexes.” In it he discusses the sex-role reversal polyandry of phalaropes and other ground-nesting shorebirds like Spotted Sandpiper and jacanas. He points out that because the young of these species are precocial and can run about immediately after hatching, they are far more self-sufficient than most hatchlings. Thus, they can be cared for by a single parent. The nestlings of most birds remain confined to the nest for many days or even weeks after hatching, necessitating the attention of both parents. 


Though not easily located by the human eye, this Spotted Sandpiper nest, photographed at Fern Ridge Wildlife Management Area, Lane County, Oregon 31 May, would make a quick meal for one of the many skunks, raccoons, and corvids that inhabit this area. This typical four-egg clutch was in shallow grassy cup on the ground just few feet off the trail through the refuge. Predation of such nests is extremely high. These eggs were nearly two inches in length and more than an inch wide.

In order to achieve such advanced development before hatching, the eggs of these shorebird species must be proportionally larger. A typical clutch of four Spotted Sandpiper eggs may account for as much as 80% of the female’s weight (Diamond 1997). Due the effort and energy that is required to produce and lay such large eggs, it is believed that there is an evolutionary advantage to having the male tend to the nest, thereby freeing the female to fatten herself up again and presumably lay more eggs. Diamond (1997) further suggests that this premium on high egg production may be driven by extremely high egg and brood predation among ground-nesting shorebirds.

Despite numerous investigations into the life histories of these birds, there is still much to learn about this type of sex role reversal. Exploring the natural world is seemingly a never-ending process. For every answer there are always two more questions.   

Literature Cited:

Colwell, M. A. and J. R. Jehl, Jr. 1994. Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Why is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Basic Books, New York, N.Y.

Klima, Joanna and Joseph R. Jehl Jr. 2003. Wilson's Phalarope. Pp. 251-253 in Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. D.B. Marshall, M.G. Hunter, and A.L. Contreras Eds. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.

All photos taken by Dave Irons