It’s fall in southern California, so birders are busy looking for the odd vagrants that show up in pocket parks and might stay long enough to be recorded on the Christmas counts. Fall is the time to be looking for sapsuckers. Here in Orange County, CA, it’s possible to see all four species of sapsucker. Red-breasted is the most common species here while Williamson’s is the rarest. We found an unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Canyon Park on Saturday, 20-NOV-11. Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers can be quite similar in appearance for much of the year and most of their lives, but in fall, a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is obvious, due to a major difference in molt patterns between the two species. Juvenile Red-naped Sapsuckers molt into their first basic plumage prior to migrating while young Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers retain their juvenile feathering all winter, not beginning to look like adults until late March or even April. Thus, a primarily brown sapsucker in winter is likely a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but you might want to take a close look at it just in case. If it has a paler brown head, or lacks the prominent white wing coverts, you could have an adult female Williamson’s Sapsucker.
We drove up to Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on the 21st to look for a male Williamson’s that had been reported there. After a long search, we found many trees bearing obvious evidence of sapsucker workings, but only two birds: a shy Red-breasted and another unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied. This bird shows the characteristic stiff tail feathers that help the bird be more stable in its perch on the trunk. The red fringe on the crown is not a photographic artifact – the bird had buried red in the crown feathers, hints of color it will show more boldly later. The shot was taken with a Canon S95 digital camera on a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope using a DA-10 adaptor.