It’s fall in southern California, so birders keep busy looking for the odd vagrants that show up in pocket parks. Some might stay long enough to become Christmas (count) presents. Fall is the time to look for sapsuckers here. In Orange County, CA, it’s possible to see all four species of sapsucker. Red-breasted Sapsuckers predominate here; locating a Williamson’s presents a challenge. We found an unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Canyon Park on Saturday, 20-NOV-11.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker versus Red-naped: the Difficult Species Pair
Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsuckers resemble each other in appearance for much of the year. Typically in fall, a juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker stand out, 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, any primarily brown sapsucker in winter is likely a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Still, you might want to take a close look at it just in case. If it has a paler brown head, or no prominent white wing coverts, it might be a female Williamson’s Sapsucker.
We drove up to Veteran’s Park in Sylmar to look for a male Williamson’s reported there. After a long search, we found many trees bearing obvious evidence of sapsucker workings, but only two birds. A shy Red-breasted kept company with another unreported juvenile Yellow-bellied. This bird shows the characteristic stiff tail feathers that help the bird perch more stably on the trunk. The pale red fringe on the crown is not a photographic artifact. This bird hid red buried in the crown feathers, hints of color it will show more boldly later. We took this photo with a Canon S95 digital camera on a Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope using a DA-10 adaptor.