Birding: constant learning

One of the great things about science is that it teaches you that, when presented with new evidence, you can change your mind. I was reminded of this the other day, watching what I was sure was a Downy Woodpecker, but I now believe was a Hairy Woodpecker.

The two species look very much alike. Without getting up close and personal, the best ways to distinguish them are:

  • The Hairy is about two inches taller than the Downy (always difficult when you see a bird in isolation)
  • The eye of the Hairy Woodpecker is half-way between the tip of the bill and the back of the head; on the Downy it’s more like one third of they way from the tip of the bill.
  • (Probably the best visual distinction) The Downy has three dark bars on the outside edge of the outer tail feathers; the Hairy has entirely white outer tail feathers.
  • In addition to differences in appearance, the two species have different vocalizations.
Here’s a not-so-great detail of pair of Downy Woodpeckers. Despite image quality issues, the bird on the left shows the position of the eye, relative to the head; the bird on the right clearly shows the bars on the outer tail feathers.

Standing near the parking lot, watching the usual collection of Bluebirds, finches, warblers, and nuthatches, I saw a woodpecker. At first I thought it might be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, based on its size and the first markings I saw. However, looking closer, I didn’t see the long, white mark along its folded wing (the coverts) I would expect to see on a Sapsucker. Then I noticed that it looked a lot like a Downy Woodpecker, but the size was wrong.

Looking at it’s tail feathers, there were no dark spots on the outer feathers. It moved rapidly, and wasn’t particularly close, but I was able to get a pair of descent shots.

The thing is, I was convinced we had very few Hairy Woodpeckers around us. When I lived in California, they were quite common. I was quite familiar with many of their calls, many of which sound like the chirping vocalizations of a Carolina Wren. I haven’t heard those Hairy Woodpecker calls here, which led me to my assumption that they weren’t found here in Apex.

However both birds have a whinnying call. The difference is that the Hairy Woodpecker’s call stays at the same pitch, whereas the Downy’s call descends in pitch toward the end, making it sound like a tiny horse. An easy way to remember is “Downy goes down.”

Now, in light of new data, I’m willing to change my mind about Hairy Woodpeckers around Seagroves Pond.

So, now take a look at the cover image on this post. Which Woodpecker do you think it is?

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