First, Lynda Carter in the Lamar community of Washington County emailed me recently with a question about a possible sighting of a red-headed woodpecker.
“I know they are uncommon and I did not get my binoculars on the bird,” Lynda wrote. “I saw the bird land in a large open-crowned oak after hearing a call very like (a) red-bellied (woodpecker) but different somehow.”
Lynda noted that she could see a lot of red on head and when the bird flew across her pasture to a pine tree, she could see big blocks of black and white in the plumage.
“I shared my sighting with my sister who lives up the mountain from me and she thought she spotted the same bird on a telephone pole in her yard a few days later,” Lynda said.
Lynda added that she and her sister live on the end of Embreeville Mountain. “We are interested in your thoughts concerning our mystery bird,” she wrote.
I responded to Lynda with my absolute confidence that she and her sister did see a red-headed woodpecker. Here are a few reasons for my belief in the identification she came up with.
The large patches of black and white are trademark characteristics of a red-headed woodpecker. The black is actually almost a glossy blue-black.
Of course, the entirely red head also separates the aptly-named red-headed woodpecker from all other members of the family in the region.
She and her sister also live in a section of Washington County near some known locations for finding red-headed woodpeckers.
It’s also spring. Red-headed woodpeckers are partly migratory, so her sighting could have involved a migrating bird. I’ve seen several red-headed woodpeckers in the spring in some surprising locations over the years.
We corresponded a bit more and Lynda shared more about the birds around her home.
“I do live in a great spot for birding,” she wrote. “We have open pasture, wooded gullies and the mountain behind us. Cherokee National Forest is my neighbor to the south and the Nolichucky River is just down the road.”
Lynda hosts nesting wood thrushes that return to the same open wooded patch behind her house. “I just love hearing their song in early morning hours and again in the evening,” she wrote.
She also wrote that she has seen more scarlet tanagers, which is always a thrill, in the last year or two.
“I have had male and female rose-breasted grosbeak at my bin feeder,” she added.
She has recently heard Eastern meadowlarks, red-eyed vireo and ovenbird. She also provides several nest boxes currently occupied by Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows.
The red-headed woodpecker and its relative, the red-bellied woodpecker, belong to a genus of tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.
The red-bellied is a common bird in the region, but some effort or simple good luck is needed to find red-headed woodpeckers. These woodpeckers, which often form family flocks, have localized populations that shift from year to year.
One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands offering an abundance of oak trees.
Ed Wells, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, emailed me recently and presented me with another identification challenge.
“I enjoy reading your feature each week,” Wells wrote. “You always inform and teach me.”
He also attached some photographs of a bird that flew into the side of his house in 2021.
“I have not been able to make a positive ID,” he said. “It appeared to be a small shorebird with a straight bill of medium length. Wing span was probably 10 inches or less and perhaps about the same from bill to tail.”
“I moved the stunned bird out of the cold wind and placed it on some mulch,” Ed wrote. “It eventually recovered and flew away.”
Ed also shared that while boating on the lake recently, he saw a bird that he believes might be the same species as his mystery bird. The shorebird was perched on rocks near the waterline.
“My boat startled it and it flew rapidly away,” he added.
Based on his photos, the best I could do was determine the bird was some sort of “peep,” which is a birding nickname for a group of small- to medium-sized sandpipers.
I speculated that the bird might have been a stilt sandpiper, but I also consulted Rick Knight, a veteran birder with much more experience with shorebirds.
“The bill looks too short for stilt sandpiper,” Rick concluded. He said that he would lean toward the bird being a least sandpiper or pectoral sandpiper.
Many shorebirds have been migrating through the region in recent weeks. During the recent five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, counters found several shorebird species, including least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs greater yellowlegs and killdeer.
Have questions about birds? Email me at email@example.com. Feel free to make comments and share observations, too.