Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, February 6, 2021

Seeing Spots

On Tuesday, Jan. 26th, just to the west of Duck Bay, a mixed flock of birds, including American Robins, European Starlings, Northern Flickers, and Stellar's Jays, were flying, feeding, and landing in and among the trees. I almost missed the small dark form of this Red-breasted Sapsucker. It was occasionally zooming from tree to tree in the midst of all the other birds. I was surprised to see it land near a Northern Flicker and even more surprised to see the Flicker startle and fly. Apparently, the Flicker was put off by the smaller bird. (Sapsuckers weigh just a couple of ounces, while Flickers can weigh two to three times that much.)

In Winter, I usually find Sapsuckers hanging on the trunks of coniferous trees. Especially, the trees where they have invested in building and maintaining hundreds of functioning sap wells. The wells provide food, while the shade and density of the surrounding year-round foliage provides security. Unlike most other birds, Sapsuckers may stay in one location, safely feeding, for quite some time.

According to Birds of the World (See citation below), Sapsuckers have special hairs on the tips of their tongues that help to maximize their "sap-sucking" ability.

The Sapsucker I saw last week was clearly not sipping sap. It was flying from tree to tree and landing just long enough to hitch its way up a trunk, or branch, while obviously inspecting for small creatures. Spring is the normal time to find the Red-breasted Sapsuckers catching insects. The nutrients help with reproduction and the growth of young birds. I was surprised to see this bird hunting insects in mid-Winter instead of feeding on the sap of a coniferous tree.

After half a dozen flights, the Sapsucker evaded my tracking abilities and disappeared.

On Friday, Jan. 29th, I was watching a flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on Cotoneaster berries...

 ...when I caught another glimpse of a Sapsucker.  

I was directly south of Elderberry Island which is also west of Duck Bay. To locate Elderberry Island Click Here then scroll down in the menu and select Elderberry Island for a duckling surprise.

This Sapsucker was flying back and forth among the dead and dying Alder trees. For a time, it inspected the tree trunks similar to the behavior seen on the previous Tuesday.

Many of the trees in this area are Red Alder. Even when they die they still have great value for Woodpeckers. (Sapsuckers are woodpeckers, even if the title is not in their name.) The softwood of the dead Red Alders is easily excavated. Which makes them wonderful sites for woodpecker' nests. Over the years Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, and even Pileated Woodpeckers have nested in this area. I am still looking for my first Sapsucker nest. Perhaps 2021 will be my lucky year.

When a Sapsucker gleans tiny creatures off the trunks of the trees it could be called a Tree-gleaning Insectivore. When consuming sap, they could be called, Sap-sucking Herbivores. In this case, I was surprised to see the Sapsucker begin feeding in a third manner. 

It was watching for flying insects and leaping off of the treetops to snag them in mid-air. The term that describes this feeding strategy is called "Sallying Forth". Making this bird a Treetop-Sallying Insectivore. 

This photo shows a yellowish belly on the Red-breasted Sapsucker. Historically, Red-breasted Sapsuckers (RBSA), Red-naped Sapsuckers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were all lumped into a single species simply called, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. 

However, scientists discovered enough differences to separate them into three species - even though they do interbreed. The three species together are sometimes referred to as a Super-species.

The range of our RBSAs is the smallest of the three. They are found primarily to the West of the Cascades in Washington, Oregon, California, and up into western British Columbia. They are short-distance migrants and are present year-round in much of their range. 

The range of the Red-naped Sapsuckers (RNSA) is primarily from the Cascades to the Rockies and down into Mexico. 

This is the only Red-naped Sapsucker I have ever seen in the Arboretum. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (YBSA) cover almost everywhere else in North America, e.g. to the East, North, and South. The YBSAs are highly migratory, while the RNSAs migrate less than the YBSAs and more than the RBSAs.

While reviewing these photos I began wondering if the bird I saw on Tuesday was the same bird that I saw on Friday. The larger and brighter white markings just below the back attracted my attention. 

The bird on the left is from Tuesday, the bird on the right is from Friday. 

This is a close up of the left photo. I am focused on the four largest white spots.

I believe these spots are the white-tips of the bird's two innermost wing feathers, on each wing. These sets of spots, from the two different days, looked so similar that I am inclined to think I saw the same bird both times.

However, I had to consider the possibility that all Red-breasted Sapsuckers might have virtually identical spots in this location. 

To begin my investigation I first checked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's Feather Atlas. They include these feathers under the title "Red-breasted Sapsucker secondary wing feathers".  If you Click Here you will see that only the innermost feather (on the far right) is white-tipped but its immediate neighbor is not. 

In my photos above, we can see that both of these inner feathers have white tips. Clearly, there is variation between individual RBSAs. I began to wonder if these patterns varied enough to help us identify individuals.

Here are two photos from January 21st, 2015. These are photos of two different RBSAs seen at the same time.

When we zoom in on their markings we can see that the patterns are similar but different. Not only do these markings look different from each other they are also different than the bird I saw last week.

This photo was taken 10 months later, e.g. Nov. 4th, 2015, and a half-mile further north, it shows another similar but different pattern.

On December 16th, 2016, we see another variation. 

It is interesting how the white on these innermost wing feathers is consistently brighter than the white of the markings in the immediately surrounding area. I wonder if it is because these wings feathers, positioned at the transition from wing to body, are better protected than the constantly exposed back feathers above them. Plus, they get less wear, from incidental contact, than the tips of the outer wing feathers, which are just below them.

Four days later, on December 20th, 2016 we see the same pattern again. This appears to indicate that this is the same bird, at the same set of sap wells.

This February 26th, 2017 photo shows another similar but unique pattern.

In October 2017 a different pattern was documented.

Surprisingly, two years later, in October of 2019, a very similar but still slightly different pattern was seen.

The next month, in November of 2019, we see what seems to be the same pattern and possibly the same bird.

Rob Faucett from the Burke Museum kindly directed me to the Slater Museums' online collection of bird wing photos. Click Here to see them. It appears to me that these same feathers, on their four RBSA wings, also have uniquely marked white tips.

It was nice to see the difference in patterns between two birds I photographed on the same day in 2015. There also appears to generally be noticeable variation between birds photographed at significantly different times. On the other hand, birds photographed in the same area just a few days or a month apart often have strikingly similar patterns.

My conclusion is that these innermost wing feathers may be generally unique to individual RBSAs. Although, I do expect that over time, due to molting and wear, their patterns may change. If you happen to notice Red-breasted Sapsuckers reoccurring in the same location you may want to photograph them and test this concept for yourself. 

Learning to identify the individual creatures that surround us, and noticing their needs, will positively change our relationship with nature. Whether we allow them to drink sap from our trees or whether we leave dead trees standing as potential nest sites, our choices can make a huge difference for them. Plus, watching them can be a huge benefit for us. Click Here to learn more.


During the last year, I have been especially appreciative of the Washington Park Arboretum. It is (partially) supported by Seattle Parks and Recreation and the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. However, much of the funding, for both upkeep and improvements, is secured via donations to the Arboretum Foundation.

This year's Spring Gala & Auction will be an online event. (I happen to know there will be a unique birding opportunity on Whidbey Island in the auction - which will include a night at the Langley Inn.)  There will be many other wonderful opportunities to bid and benefit the Arboretum. Please join us! Registration is free.

Click Here to register!

Note: All of the photos is this week's post were taken in the Arboretum. Nature in the city needs our support!


Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city and Black Birders are welcome!


ps: Out of curiosity, I did a similar search on the Red-naped Sapsucker. Their innermost wing feathers have even more varied and interesting white-tips. You can see an example in the RNSA photo in the Feather Atlas - Click Here. To see additional RNSA examples in the Slater Museum collection - Click Here.

Recommended Citation

 Walters, E. L., E. H. Miller, and P. E. Lowther (2020). Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rebsap.01

 Howell, T. R. (1952). Natural history and differentiation in the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Condor 54:237-282.

Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors, and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms. 

(By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

Also, Jane Lundin has created a small package, with a lot of critical information that looks quite handy, and light, for backpacking in the mountains in Springtime. It is titled, Mountain Wildflowers of Washington.)

What species of bird is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

Scroll down for the answer.


European Starling: Starlings are native to Europe and invasive in North America. Nonetheless they can be surprisingly beautiful birds at this time of year. As the year progresses, the white markings on the tips of their feathers will wear away and this bird will become a much duller and darker version of its current self.


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is: LDHubbell@Comcast.Net

One more photo:
Notice how none of these Cedar Waxwings, photographed in the last week of January, have any of the vertical chest stripes indicative of youth. They appear to have all attained adult plumage.


  1. The variation in white spots on the Sapsuckers reminds me of ID for Gray Whales using their distinctive white markings.

    1. Yes. I found it similar as well. Although, it is different because feather tips wear away, plus the whole feather is lost via molting and are then replaced. I suspect new feathers may look different because of the changes in nutrition and possibly general health. If this is true then this approach only allows us to ID a RBSA for a limited time - maybe just a season or so. It would be certainly be fun (although difficult) to closely follow a banded bird and observe how these specific feathers change over time.

  2. We live in Madison Park and have seen up to eight bald eagles at one time in a big tree on the north east corner near Edgewater apartments. Saw three adults and five sub adults together. What insights do you have regarding this eagle clan?

    1. Based on comments from other readers of my blog I suspect the primary two adults in this area would be Eva and Albert from the broadmoor nest. (They used to spend a lot more time on the 520 bridge but with the current construction I am assuming they find Madison Park a bit quieter.) Immature bald eagles are said to roam the country side in small groups, searching for food, until they mature, take a mate, declare a territory and settle down - circa 4 to 5 years of age. In the meantime the settle pair will often run off 1 or 2 young interlopers but are hesitant to take on larger numbers. Sometime one of the "immature" can actually look or be mature but still not mated - I suspect. Nothing I have read indicates these groupings are family members. I hope that helps. It would be interesting to know what they are eating or hunting in that area.