Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Story of the Williamson's Sapsucker

This is a story about a woodpecker.  It isn't just any woodpecker, but is the most variable woodpecker in North America in it's sexes and plumage.  It is shy and is often overlooked, but is also very beautiful and striking when one sees it.  I used to see this bird on family vacations, but not often because I wasn't listening for it.  It wasn't until a year ago that I realized how cool this bird really is, and I focused my vacation to Greer, Arizona in July 2013 to observe and photograph this bird on every trip after not observing it as much as I should.  This woodpecker is called the Williamson's Sapsucker.  It is now one of my favorite birds.  Join me for the Story of the Williamson's Sapsucker.  I will discuss it's history when it was discovered, it's different plumages, habitat, behavior, and my time spent with the species over the course of eight days in July.  It's an amazing bird, one that every birder should appreciate.

This is completely based on a true story.  However, some of the pictures and may be slightly changed in order to represent history.  They may not represent history well, but I'm trying my best.

The history of the Williamson's Sapsucker discovery

In 1852, John Cassin described an interesting woodpecker.  John was an American ornithologist playing one of the most exciting roles in the birding of North America.  He was discovering a species for the first time, and this particular woodpecker was an interesting bird.  This woodpecker was a pale brown and a black-barred coloration overall.  It had a striking black breast and a yellow belly, and a white rump.  Cassin decided to name this woodpecker the Black-breasted Woodpecker.

Black-breasted Woodpecker

John Cassin after seeing the Black-breasted Woodpecker for the first time

In 1855, Lieutenant Robert Stockton Williamson, an American soldier and engineer, was surveying areas for the transcontinental railroad in California and Oregon.  John Newberry was on this expedition, and he saw a striking woodpecker on the Williamson survey.  It had an all black back with a white patch on each shoulder, a white rump, two white stripes on it's all black face, and a bright red throat, black breast, and a yellow belly.  The bird probably really took John by surprise when he first saw it flying across a forest.  He decided to collect the woodpecker, and he decided to name it the Williamson's Woodpecker.  This all took place on the early railroad surveys for the West Coast states that was led by Lieutenant Williamson, where the woodpecker got it's name.

Williamson's Woodpecker

The early ornithologists then started to observe that the two woodpeckers, Williamson's and Black-breasted Woodpeckers closely associating with each other.  They both had incredibly similar habits, but there was a certain mystery about them.  Another ornithologist named John, John Bell, collected two specimens of the Black-breasted Woodpecker, which was were also collected in 1851, before the first Williamson's Woodpecker was collected.  The three Johns:  John Cassin, John Newberry, and John Bell all played the first key roles in the species first discoveries.  Both of these woodpeckers looked very different from each other, and for over twenty years, these early ornithologists studied and studied to figure out more about them.

John Cassin studying hard

An interesting question came to the ornithologists:  Could these two woodpeckers possibly somehow be a single species?  It seemed strange, considering how different they were.  Every other woodpecker in North America showed plumages that were overall very similar to each other.  Eventually, a non-John by the name of Henry Henshaw came along.  Henry was in Colorado in 1873, and he saw a Williamson's Woodpecker and a Black-breasted Woodpecker in a hole together.  They were mates and it solved the question of why the Williamson's Woodpecker and Black-breasted Woodpecker were always near each other.  They were one species!  The early ornithologists would learn even more about the offspring of the species, which also look different.  After considering the two different names, they decided to name the woodpecker the Williamson's Woodpecker after the male bird discovered and collected on Lieutenant Robert Stockton Williamson's expedition.  So, the Williamson's Woodpecker was the male of this species all along and the female Williamson's Woodpecker was the thought to be Black-breasted Woodpecker.  The name, Williamson's Woodpecker was then changed to Williamson's Sapsucker as they were found to be in the woodpecker genus known as Sapsuckers or "Sphyrapicus" in the first checklist of the American Ornithologists Union in 1886.  And that is the early history of this spectacular bird.

One hundred years later, I, Tommy John DeBardeleben, was born in 1986, 27 years ago.  Little did I know, the Williamson's Sapsucker would be the first bird I would eventually shoot endless photos of of each plumage and sexual variation.  I'm a huge fan of this bird.  And I have John somewhere in my name like those early ornithologists, perhaps I can contribute one of the first Blogspot narratives of the Williamson's Sapsucker with the variety of different plumages and variation and many pictures of each.  I'm sure that somewhere else, someone else has already done something similar to this.  I did spend an entire week with this bird, I would be dumb if I didn't get good pictures!  Hopefully, I can bring the Williamson's Sapsucker to life in this blog post and at least 10 percent as good as the early explorers did!

About the Williamson's Sapsucker

The Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) is a medium-sized woodpecker in a genus of woodpeckers known as Sapsuckers.  There are three other Sapsucker species in North America: the Red-naped, Yellow-bellied, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, which all used to be a single species known as Red-naped Sapsucker.  The Williamson's Sapsucker is drastically different than the other three species, although it shares similar foraging and feeding habits.  

The Williamson's Sapsucker is found in western North America, where it breeds from southern British Columbia on the north to central Arizona and northwestern New Mexico on the south.  This also includes the Pacific Coast states where the bird was originally discovered, Utah, Idaho,  as well as some of Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.  It winters throughout the pine forests of Mexico.  The northern populations of Williamson's Sapsucker do migrate south, and the southern population may be found year round in ponderosa pine forests.  They are rare in lowland habitats during winter, where they usually favor planted conifers in parks and cemeteries, or in thick riparian habitats.  Williamson's Sapsuckers breed in conifer forests, often those with aspen groves mixed in.  Such conifers consist of different firs and pines.  They will often nest inside of aspen groves found in these coniferous forests.  

Here are a few examples of these habitats, which were taken in Greer, Arizona.  These habitats consist of mixed pine and fir, as well as aspen in the habitat.

Williamson's Sapsucker Habitat

Breeding wise, the Williamson's Sapsucker will nest in a cavity of a pine, fir, or aspen tree.  They usually have a different nest annually, but they occasionally nest in one cavity for life.  The sapsuckers have one brood per year, with the female laying three to seven eggs.  Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, which takes 12 to 14 days.

Feeding wise, the Williamson's Sapsucker's diet includes sap, ants, larvae, berries in winter, and moths.  It often drills lines of holes in trees, where it returns continuously to feed on the sap from the trees.  A actively feeding sapsucker may move quickly from tree to tree.  It may start very low on the tree before working it's way up to the top of the tree.  This process is repeated often as the sapsucker flies from tree to tree.  

In spring, males arrive on territories about two weeks before the females arrive.  Once the young are fully fledged, the family usually splits up.  Although they split up, they may be found in very close range of one another.

Sapsuckers are often territorial, and they drum in order to establish their territories.  Williamson's Sapsuckers may chase off intruding woodpeckers who come close to their territory.  In winter, they may establish feeding territories as well.

The Williamson's Sapsucker is uncommon over most of it's range.  Populations of this bird are healthy, but may be declining in some areas in the northern stretch of it's range due to habitat loss.  In the appropriate range and habitat for the Williamson's Sapsucker, they are usually found by listening for tapping and foraging on bark.

Identification and Sexual Variation of Williamson's Sapsuckers

As mentioned above, no other woodpecker species in North America is so different in plumage between the male and female as the Williamson's Sapsucker is.  Identification of this species is generally easy and straightforward, and there isn't a lot of room for confusion with other species.  The male Williamson's Sapsucker is a handsome and striking bird, and the female looks entirely different.  It is no wonder why the first ornithologists classified the two sexes as separate species.  In this section, the adult and juvenile males will be shown, as well as the adult and juvenile females.  Juveniles look similar to the adult version of their sex, but are still noticeably different.  Because the male and females do look like separate species, the juveniles of each look more like the females of each if they were indeed the Williamson's and Black-breasted Woodpeckers back in early history.  Let's take a look at each variation.

Adult Male:  The adult male Williamson's Sapsucker is a stud, and is obviously the star of the show.  His head, breast, tail, and entire back are a dark black.  His head has two white stripes on it, and there is also a white wing patch on each wing in the shoulder area.  The rump of the bird is white.  This makes for a striking display when the bird takes flight.  To make it extra striking, the chin and throat of the bird is red, it has a yellow belly that is often very bright.

Juvenile Male:  The juvenile male Williamson's Sapsucker is similar to the adult.  The exception is that the juvenile has a white throat and a white belly.  At times, there may be a hint of yellow on the belly in earlier stages of it's juvenile plumage.  This bird doesn't quite have the striking appeal to it as the adult male does, but it still is pretty cool.  If the historic assumptions of the Williamson's Woodpecker and Black-breasted Woodpecker were indeed true, this would be a more logical female Williamson's Woodpecker according to all of the other woodpeckers in North America.

Adult Female:  This bird is not obviously the male Williamson's Sapsucker's counterpart, and formerly called the Black-breasted Woodpecker for twenty years from 1851 through 1873.  But she is his romantic mate, and her breast is pretty attractive.  She is strongly barred black, brown, and white overall, has a brown head, a very obvious black breast, and a yellow belly.  Her confusion bird would be a Gila Woodpecker.  A rare wintering female Williamson's Sapsucker in the lowlands might be passed off as the Gila.  The Gila also has a strongly barred back, but doesn't have the barring on the front as the female Williamson's Sapsucker does.  Also, if the Black-breasted Woodpecker was a different species as originally thought, this adult female would make a good male for that species while the juvenile female (continue below) would make a good adult female.  It really shows the strange diversity of plumage in this species.

Juvenile Female:  This bird is similar overall to the adult female.  It his similarly barred overall, but is very plain and lacks any striking feature.  The juvenile female lacks the black breast and yellow belly.  It may be confused with the Northern Flicker.  The flicker is also very strongly barred on the back, but not on the front, where it is spotted.  The juvenile female Williamson's Sapsucker will also show strong barring on it's front sides.

A few slightly similar woodpeckers at a first glance:  These woodpeckers are the species that may be confused slightly with the Williamson's Sapsucker.  One is the Black-backed Woodpecker in places where the range is shared with the Williamson's Sapsucker.  It's only real similarity is the all black back.  There are no white wing bars on the Black-backed Woodpecker.  The female Williamson's Sapsucker of both adult and juveniles may be mistaken at a first glance with a flicker by those who haven't seen female Williamson's Sapsuckers.  Flickers are noticeably larger and are barred on the back like the sapsuckers, but are spotted on the front instead of barred on the front.  Williamson's Sapsuckers are strikingly different from the other three sapsuckers in all plumages.

Juvenile female Williamson's Sapsucker with juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker

Northern Flicker

My 2013 Search for the Williamson's Sapsucker

Whenever I take a trip to the White Mountains, I usually have a goal.  It might be to find as many species as possible in a trip or to visit a certain amount of places in a given trip.  This year, my goal was to find all four Williamson's Sapsucker variations and get photos of all of them.  I saw the sapsuckers on every day of the trip.  All of the species, except the adult male, were extremely cooperative for photos.  I saw plenty of adult males, but they tend to be very shy.  While some of the photos turned out good, they aren't as crisp as the other three variations.  Regardless, I'm very thankful for what I got.  The adult female I photographed was the only one I saw on the entire trip.  On my last night in Greer, she appeared in the evening.  I didn't think I would find one, but I felt a taste of sweet sap when she finally appeared!  The trip was a fantastic treat and it was fun observing and photographing these amazing woodpeckers for eight straight days.  And I'm not anywhere near finished with photographing and watching the Williamson's Sapsucker, it is now one of my favorite birds!  This last set of many photos shows my eight days with this bird.  

Eight Days with the Williamson's

Credits for sources of some of the facts:  An Audubon Handbook to Western Birds, The Birder's Handbook, Book of North American Birds, The Birds of North America Online by Cornell, The Sibley Guide To Birds, Wikipedia,, iBird Pro (iPod application), National Geographic Guide to Birds.   A better works cited coming soon...I'm tired.