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Our quiz bird is certainly shorter than those neighboring Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, but is at least similar in mass, as it looks stockier. The legs seem quite short and the wings fairly long (the longest primaries extend fairly far past the tips of the tertials, a feature known as primary projection). After that, there is not much else in the way of structure cues to use, so we’ll have to deign to look at the bird’s plumage. That plumage shows black-and-white barring on the back, black-and-white patterning on the wings, whitish underparts, a mostly white rump, and a mostly black tail.
The back pattern is restricted in ABA-area birds to a small number of woodpeckers, because Zigzag Heron and Barred Antshrike are not on the list. Once among the zebra-striped woodpeckers, the combination of strongly-patterned wings, whitish rump, and nearly-all-dark tail should identify this bird as a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.
Though this snap judgment may be right, there are two processes in bird identification, and we have just traversed the first in a fairly cursory manner. The second process, which many birders shortchange or skip altogether, is definitively ruling out other options. Particularly because of the rapid manner in which we came to a tentative identity of the quiz bird, we should be a bit methodical in this second step.
Sapsuckers (Red-breasted, Red-naped, Yellow-bellied): ruled out by wing pattern and lack of strong dark barring on flanks;
Three-toed Woodpecker: ruled out by wing pattern, lack of strong dark barring on flanks, whitish rump;
Red-cockaded, Nuttall’s, and Ladder-backed woodpeckers: ruled out by dark rump and lack of strong dark barring on flanks;
Gila Woodpecker: ruled out by lack of strong barring on rump and central portion of tail;
Red-bellied Woodpecker: ruled out by lack of black-and-white barring in middle of tail; and
Golden-fronted Woodpecker: ruled out by dark markings on rump.
Yes, just because all of the quickly noted characters seem right for Golden-fronted Woodpecker does not necessarily mean that our quiz bird is a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, which has a clean, white rump. As noted by Sibley, south Florida Red-bellied Woodpeckers have more-extensively-black tails than do the more-northerly and –westerly representatives of the species. Is that the solution? Well, while certainly not impossible, getting a picture of such a bird with not one, but two, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers seems at least a bit unlikely. Yes, rarer things have happened, but rare things are rare, and, no matter how we may wish to find that next rarity, the chances are against us.
The Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in the picture impart a Texan flavor, which is eminently understandable since that large state accounts for over half the species’ breeding range. Texas also hosts both Golden-fronted and Red-bellied woodpeckers and, unfortunately for those that like their answers simple, hybrids between the two. However, I do not believe that we will have to play the “H” card on this bird, as long as we scrutinize the individual much more closely.
That closer scrutiny should reveal that our bird’s tail is forked, or apparently so. That would be odd for any ABA-area woodpecker, which have the central rectrices being the longest on the tail, at least partially because those feathers provide woodpeckers’ main prop for holding the head up when perched on the side of a tree trunk.
Most landbirds molt their (typically 12) tail feathers sequentially from the inside out, that is, the two central rectrices (r1) are dropped first, followed by successive pairs of right- and left-side rectrices to the outermost pair (r2, r3, r4, r5, r6). Woodpeckers follow a different plan, because of the higher importance of their central pair of rectrices, starting replacement with the r2s (the right- and left-side pair of feathers bordering the r1s) and continuing out to the r6s and only then dropping and replacing the r1s.
Our quiz bird is to the point in its tail molt where it has dropped the central rectrices, creating the appearance of a forked tail. Of course, on Red-bellied Woodpecker, it is these two feathers that are banded black-and-white in the middle portion of the tail. That species also sports black spots/blotches on its white rump.
I took this picture of a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (with Scissor-tailed Flycatchers) at Smith Point, Chambers Co., TX, on 16 October 2013.
The following people (listed by submission date beginning with the earliest) submitted correct answers for the December Bird Photo Quiz—Red-bellied Woodpecker:
The following list shows the number of submissions for each species guessed.
The photo and answer for this quiz were supplied by Tony Leukering.