Backyard Hybrid?

By: Beth Arnold, Travis Audubon Master Birder

A few days after Stephen Shunk entranced me with his amazing facts about woodpeckers, I spotted a mystery at the suet feeder.  At first I recognized a red-bellied woodpecker.  But as I continued to observe the bird, things didn’t look exactly as expected.  It was a male with the expected red s, but the nape seemed to have two parts.  It was subtle, but while the part at the crown of the head looked bright red, the part going down the back of the head to the nape appeared to be red orange with a yellow tinge at the edges.  Or was it my eyes… or the light…?  Yikes!  It turned to face my direction and flashed a bright yellow patch on its underbelly. But wait, aren’t those those red-bellied retrices?  Could this be what Steve had talked about?  Could I be observing a hybrid red-bellied/ golden-fronted woodpecker?

Steve literally wrote the book on woodpeckers, Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America to be exact.  He lives in Bend, Oregon. TAS field trip organizer and leader Judith Bailey arranged to have Steve share his expertise in Austin on a sunny February morning at Hornsby Bend.

That morning we watched a ladder-back woodpecker couple fly around and into a cavity in a snag and learned about the essential need for snags (dead trees) for woodpecker housing as well as for housing for a long list of other birds that take advantage of the woodpeckers’ initial excavation work. Steve explained that since Austin is a location where eastern birds meet their western genus counterparts, the ladder-backs we observed sometimes hybridize with downy woodpeckers. Identifying hybrids can be subtle, so he suggested to look and listen closely.  Sometimes the hybridization is evident in the call or song alone.

We heard other woodpeckers that morning as well, but we kept getting distracted by bald eagles, a zone-tailed hawk, caracaras and other raptors.  What a morning!  Steve did not mind the distractions.  He professed to be an “equal opportunity”  birder.

During his afternoon workshop Steve elaborated more on the amazing anatomy and adaptation of Texas woodpeckers.  Steve had some very experienced birders in that workshop, but regardless, he had us all practically sitting on the edge of our seats to learn the next woodpecker fact. Steve’s passion for woodpeckers is evident and contagious.

Steve arranges birding tours in Central Texas, as well as in Central Oregon—boasting of 11 woodpecker species—and many other places.  You can find out more about Steve’s work at woodpeckerwonderland.com and paradisebirding.com.

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