Speaking of nature: Yellow-bellied woodpecker, a truly migratory woodpecker species

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Last week I shared a story about my discovery of a flying squirrel that had come to visit my feeder. It was the first time I saw a flying squirrel in my house and I am disappointed to report that I did not see the little guy again although I look for him regularly. I can’t provide a reason for this, but I will continue to turn on the porch light several times per night in case a return visit is made.

On the bright side is the fact that there was another very interesting bird sighting at my feeders. For only the third time in the past 17 years, I have seen and photographed a yellow bellied woodpecker in my peanut feeders, and this time the bird was very young. So, something seems to have changed, although again I am unable to offer any reason for it.

The yellow-bellied woodpecker is a species of woodpecker that is listed as an “uncommon” species in Massachusetts. I should also mention that the species is migratory and is not meant to be here in winter at all. Thus, in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Audubon Society considers it uncommon at the height of its abundance, that is to say during the months of May and June.

In July and August, the bird is classified as “occasional” until there is a brief period in September when it is again raised to “uncommon” status. From November to January, the species is downgraded to “rare / sporadic / irruptive” and from February to mid-April, the species is recorded as being completely absent. This last period of absence sheds some light on the behavior of this species, and a quick glance at a range map tells us a much clearer story.

It turns out that the yellow-bellied woodpecker is a truly migratory species of woodpecker. Unlike the small pubescent, hairy woodpeckers that remain in yards as residents throughout the year, the yellow-bellied woodpecker comes out of the northern half of North America during the winter months. This explains its absence at the height of winter.

A closer look at the birds’ summer breeding range shows that the species is only found in the western half of Massachusetts, meaning that we are on the fringes of its summer range, but we are not in no case at its southern limit. Heading towards southwestern Bay State, the summer range appears to follow the Appalachian Mountain Range all the way down to include most of West Virginia state. Then the western limit of the summer range rises up to the southern border of New York and moves west to Wisconsin before turning northwest to extend to Alaska.

The reasons for peak to peak flyways almost certainly include the seasonal availability of tree sap. The species has a specialized tongue with a “brush” at the end to allow the bird to easily lapping up the liquid. The species also has a specialized behavior that allows it to harvest tree sap. Small, shallow holes are drilled in the trees to collect the sap. Preferred tree species include birches and maples. I have to note that we humans love the sap of maple trees too, so it’s no wonder that a wild animal also finds out how to harvest a sweet food like this.

So now we understand a little better where the bird is, when it is there and why it is there. What I can’t really explain is why I suddenly see these birds after going so many years without a single sighting. I would think the local woodpeckers only recently discovered my feeders and remembered coming back for food, but that wouldn’t fit my three observations.

In December 2019, I noticed a bird that I finally decided to be a juvenile female. I didn’t see a woodpecker at all in 2020, but in February 2021 I noticed a bird that was clearly an adult female. It might be the same bird from 2019, but I have no way to prove it. This bird was present at a time when it should have been completely absent, but apparently she never received the memo.

So if I had seen another adult female this month, I would start to think it could be the same bird, but that is not what happened. This time I saw another juvenile that was clearly born this summer. The coloring of the head feathers does not have the bold black and white patterns seen in adults and there is only a tiny hint of red feathers that will eventually cover the bird’s forehead. Adult males will also have a patch of red feathers on their throats, which this bird has no trace of.

So, once again, a young woodpecker female discovered my feeders, and in her true woodpecker form the bird was gone as quickly as it appeared. This means that I now have two different animals to look for whenever the opportunity arises: a flying squirrel at night and a yellow-bellied woodpecker during the day. If I’m lucky, I’ll see them both again. However, I might also notice something else of interest while maintaining my vigilance and I will be sure to share it with you if I do.

Bill Danielson has been a professional nature photographer and writer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more information, visit their website at www. Speakingofnature.com, or visit Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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