October Bird Forecast

What to watch for in October: Crowd-pleasing Woodpeckers

Fall migration continues. Check BirdCast to see what birds are forecast to be migrating tonight. Help them along their way by participating in Lights Out for Birds through November 30.

Watch for Woodpeckers

The Austin area has several species of woodpeckers that live here year round. If you notice a bird flying across the sky with an undulating pattern, rising as it flaps, then falling as it brings the wings in close and glides, there’s a reasonable chance it’s a woodpecker. Keep an eye on where it landed and track it down. Neighborhoods with a mix of mature, dead and dying trees are especially attractive to woodpeckers.

The usual suspects are the Red-bellied, Golden-fronted, Ladder-backed and Downy Woodpeckers. Red-bellied and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are closely related medium-sized birds, about the size of a robin. They both have barred black and white backs but their head patterns are different. The male Red-bellied has a red stripe of color from the nape (back of the neck) to the crown all the way to the bill. The female Red-bellied only has red on her nape, and a red splotch above the bill. Many people think a better name for this bird is the Red-headed Woodpecker, but while Austin occasionally hosts a Red-headed, they are rare here. Its head is completely red, unlike the limited red on the Red-bellied.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
COURTESY: James Giroux

A Red-bellied is so named for the pale reddish blush on the belly above the legs. Early ornithologists shot birds to identify them in the hand rather than with binoculars, and noticed the red blush. The Golden-fronted male has a yellow/gold nape, with a red crown cap, and yellow above the bill. The female is similar but lacks the red crown. When these two species are foraging high, with their heads and bellies facing tree limbs, it is challenging to tell the species apart. The answer is in the tail feathers, with Red-bellied tail feathers having black and white barring, compared to the solid black in the Golden-fronted. They do have slightly different calls too. The Merlin app can help. Fun fact: Red-bellied and Golden-fronted are partial to orange halves.

Red-headed Woodpecker
COURTESY: James Giroux
Female Golden-fronted Woodpecker
COURTESY: James Giroux

The Ladder-backed is slightly larger than the Downy Woodpecker, the smallest North American woodpecker. If you see these two species well, they are easy to tell apart. The Ladder-back’s back has black and white barring while the Downy’s back has a central white stripe set off by black back feathers. The Ladder-back’s bill is much longer, and it has streaks on its buff-colored breast and flanks. The Downy is clean white below. The birds have different calls too. The Downy’s is thinner and higher pitched. In these two woodpeckers red on the crown denotes the males. The red is all across the crown on the Ladder-backed while there’s just a red dot on the crown of the male Downy.

Male Ladder-backed Woodpecker
COURTESY: James Giroux
Male Downy Woodpecker
COURTESY: James Giroux

It’s fun to contemplate the different bill lengths of these woodpeckers that allow the species to exploit different habitat niches within the same area, so they can coexist.

Wintering Woodpeckers Arrive in October

Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive in October and November and will be here through the winter. The Northern Flicker has a huge summer range from Alaska to the Canadian Atlantic coast. It’s also a permanent resident across most of the U.S. from the Pacific to the Atlantic and down along the eastern Gulf Coast. Unlike more arboreal woodpeckers, the flicker often forages on the ground. As a result, the northern populations in Canada and the northern U.S. must leave locations with deep snow that stays through the winter and migrate south to warmer climes. There are two distinct subspecies of flickers – the Red-shafted of western North America, and the Yellow-shafted of eastern North America. We get both in Austin. The best tipoff that you are encountering a flicker is to listen for a loud “kleah.” Start looking for a substantial bird the size of a White-winged Dove often perched up high, hugging a tree branch with typical vertical woodpecker posture. The flicker has a noticeable curved bill, a rich golden barred back and a white breast and belly with black speckling.

Northern Flicker
COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are not cowardly as the name might suggest. Some may migrate all the way to Panama, not a journey for the faint of heart. On both its summering and wintering grounds, this sapsucker visits the evenly spaced sap wells it drills in trees, and then laps the sap and insects that get trapped in it. Many other species from butterflies to hummingbirds to warblers take advantage of unguarded sap wells for nourishment. Besides supporting other species particularly during inclement weather, the sapsucker excavates nest cavities on its breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and much of Canada. Eventually those cavities become homes for other cavity nesting birds.

The Yellow-bellied is slightly larger than a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. An adult has zebra barring on a black back with distinctive white wing patches visible when the bird is foraging. It is fairly well camouflaged, but listen for its distinctive mewing call, and look for the sap wells which can be fairly low on tree trunks. An interesting fact about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is that although it only gets about 20 percent of its diet from sap, it spends the majority of its time creating, tending and defending its sap wells.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tending a sap well
COURTESY: Jeff Osborne

Good places to look for a variety of woodpeckers include Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park, Emma Long Metro Park, Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park and the adjacent Circle Acres Nature Preserve (accessed off Grove Blvd.)

Compiled by Travis Audubon volunteer Jane Tillman for KXAN.