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While birding along Winter Ridge in central Lake County, Oregon on 19 June 2010, Shawneen Finnegan and I found and photographed a male Picoides woodpecker that we believe to be a hybrid White-headed Woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus) X Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus).
The images here are a sampling of several dozen that we captured. We feel that the plumage fits what a cross of these two species might look like and we are unable to come up with any other plausible explanation for the overall appearance of this bird. We encourage your comments and invite you to offer up other theories that might explain the unique appearance of this woodpecker.
We ask that you post comments directly on this site so that all who view these images can refer to them without having to access them at other listservs. All comments will be permanently archived along with this photo essay.
I first spotted this bird as it flew across Forest Service Road 2901, which runs from Oregon Hwy 31 to Fremont Point. I called it out as a White-headed Woodpecker in flight because it appeared to have a lot white in the face and it looked to be entirely black above aside from white patches at the base of the primaries. It landed facing away from us on log just off the west side of the road. As I attempted to get Shawneen on the bird, it took off and flew a short distance before landing on the side of large Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa). As it flew, I noticed that the sides of the tail appeared white. When it landed, my view of it was blocked by another tree, but Shawneen had it in sight and immediately said, "It's a Hairy, but it's really dark."
After briefly comparing notes about what we had seen, it became apparent that this was an interesting bird, so I started after it in an effort to get some photos. Shawneen opted to stay behind in hopes that I would be able to get close enough to get some good shots. The bird moved from tree to tree actively feeding before finally settling on a very large Ponderosa Pine on the east side of the road. It moved around the trunk of this tree for about 2-3 minutes before flying off and disappearing deep in the woods.
Since it was early evening (about 6:30PM) the interior of the stand of trees where we found the bird was not well-lit. I ended up shooting at fairly slow shutter speeds (1/80th to 1/320th of a second) on most of the shots, so many are not in good focus or they are backlit. However, the bird eventually moved into more direct light and I was able to get a few images that are fairly crisp. I stopped taking photos a few times to look at the bird, so I would not have to rely entirely on the photos to capture the essence of the bird. By the time I returned to find Shawneen, I was pretty sure that the bird had to be a White-headed X Hairy hybrid. Upon looking at the photos, Shawneen agreed with this conclusion.
Again, we invite your thoughts and comments about this bird. Please share them in the "comments" box below.
All photos taken by Dave Irons
Though many folks perused the waterbird in our most recent ID Challenge, only two brave souls take a crack at naming it in a public comment. One answered correctly, which was not surprising given that person's years of birding experience and the fact that he lives in the coastal town where the quiz image was taken. Perhaps more useful was the incorrect answer because the species named in that answer offers a general appearance that is very similar to the quiz bird. The plumage similarities between these two species was the reason that I decided to post this ID challenge.
Wayne Hoffman was correct in identifying the quiz bird as a first year male Surf Scoter, and offering up that its appearance is suggestive of an eider. I purposely chose a shot where the bill was obscured, otherwise this quiz would not have been a challenge. John Plank guessed that it is an immature King Eider, not unreasonable given that (as he points out) we can't see the bill. A quick turn of the head and this bird is readily identifiable as can be seen in the image below.
When I found this bird, the first thing I noticed was its plumage. The combination of a near black head, light breast, and dark brown back and flanks were suggestive of a first year male King Eider. Fortunately, I had the benefit of being only about 30-40 meters away from the bird as is swam in comparatively placid waters between the jetties at the mouth of Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon. As soon as I saw the bill, I knew it was a Surf Scoter. If I'd previously seen a young male Surf Scoter that looked like this one, I didn't recall it, so I decided to take some pictures.
This first year male was in a flock of about a dozen male Surf Scoters, some adults and some first-year birds. Most of the first-year birds looked like the left hand bird in the photo below. They were almost entirely black with some brown still showing in their folded wings. Their bills appeared to be near identical to those of the adults, but they lacked the conspicuous white patches that mark the nape and forehead on adult males. All of the young males showed some white feathering on the nape, generally creating an area on the nape that was mostly black with some white mottling.
According to Savard et al. (1998), molt sequences in Surf Scoters are highly variable. The prebasic molt in first-year birds is usually complete (except for flight feathers), resulting in first-year males that are almost entirely black in plumage. The left hand bird in the image above presents the typical appearance of a one-year-old male. However, in some individuals this molt is either delayed or incomplete, which surely explains the appearance of the quiz bird. These authors point out that some individuals retain juvenile abdominal feathering into first-basic plumage. It would appear that the worn and somewhat faded body feathers on the quiz bird are indeed retained from its juvenile plumage. Since these photos were taken on 22 May 2010 in Newport, Oregon, where Surf Scoters do breed, we can assume that this bird is nearly a full year old (hatched in the Summer of 2009).
As mentioned above, the reason I chose this bird for an ID quiz was its similarity in appearance to a first-year male King Eider. At close range, few birders would have any difficulty identifying this bird to species. The long, sloping, multi-colored bill of male Surf Scoters is unmistakable. On the other hand, if one were to see this bird 300+ meters away, bobbing in and out of view between swells on a sunny day, distance and heat waves might make it difficult to discern the exact size, shape, and color pattern of the bill. Under such circumstances, the general plumage pattern shown by the quiz bird might cause many of us to think we were seeing a young eider. If this bird were a young King Eider, it would be whiter on the breast, have a shorter all-orange bill, and show a fairly obvious white patch on the lower flanks (just in front of the tail).
This is yet another example of an age class of a species that is not thoroughly covered by popular field guides. Among the North American field guides that I own, Sibley, Kaufman, and the National Wildlife Federation guide (authored by Ned Brinkley) offer photos or illustrations of first-year males showing the mostly black plumage that is typical. Oddly, my 4th edition National Geographic guide includes an illustration of a light brownish, pale-breasted first-year male, but does not illustrate the more expected all-black first-year plumage. Further, it shows the bird in a rolled over position preening its breast, not exactly the profile we normally see in a swimming scoter.
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to correctly identifying birds that are atypical in appearance. It's important to realize that not every bird you see will match up with an illustration in your favorite field guide and that even the most common species may occasionally cross you up with a suspended molt or transitional plumage.
Savard, Jean-Pierre L., Daniel Bordage and Austin Reed. 1998. Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/363