By Bill Chaisson
I was walking along Main Street in Sutton Mills, N.H., after casting my vote in the presidential primary when I heard a sort of buzzy trill above and behind me, over toward the school. It was a peculiar sound, somewhere between a giggle and a beep. I turned to my companion and asked, “Did you hear that?” She had not. As birdwatchers are prone to do, I broke off our conversation and cocked my head, listening for the call. It came again. “Did you hear it that time?” She had, but did not appear impressed. “That’s a red-bellied woodpecker. I didn’t know they were around in the winter.” She smiled gamely, but did not pursue the topic.
The red-bellied woodpecker is not listed in the breeding bird atlases of either Vermont or New Hampshire, which were written in 1985 and 1996, respectively. The atlas for New York state was published in 2008, however, and the distribution map shows both occurrences during the 2000-2005 survey period and for the earlier 1985 survey. In New York the species had early strongholds in the lower Hudson Valley, the north shore of Long Island, and upstate in the Finger Lakes and Ontario lowland. As of 2005 its range had expanded, but it was still not seen in the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the higher parts of the Allegheny Plateau in southwestern New York.
This is a typical pattern for a southern species that is spreading northward, whether it is a plant or an animal. In fact, animals tend to follow plant communities because they are their source of food. Last week I mentioned that the cardinal spread into New Hampshire along the Connecticut and Merrimack valleys. In 2015, NHPR reported a record year for red-bellied woodpeckers in the Christmas Bird Count, with the highest numbers in southern New Hampshire.
In a 2014 column in the Keene Sentinel newspaper, Chris Bosak, who is based in Connecticut, reported numerous reports from southern New Hampshire readers who had sighted this southern woodpecker at their feeders. Bosak mentions that this species has difficulty getting through harsh northern winters, and I found a newspaper article from the seacoast region that claimed they relied heavily on feeders to get through the winter.
When I thought they were migratory, I had confused them with the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Sapsuckers withdraw to the southeastern U.S. for the winter. They, however, are an entirely different genus, Sphyrapicus, but in the same tribe, Dendropicini, as the red-bellied woodpecker. Melanerpes carolinensis is one of two members of the Melanerpes genus present in the eastern U.S. Most are found in the western U.S., Caribbean, Central and South America.
M. carolinensis, M. aurifrons (golden-fronted), and M. uropygialis (Gila) form a classic biogeographic cline from east to west across the southern U.S. All of these birds have backs and wings that are finely barred in black and white, black outer tail feathers, light yellowish brown underparts, and red crowns. But as you go from east to west the birds have progressively less red on the heads: carolinensis males have a “red mohawk” from their beaks to their napes; aurifrons has a red crown and a red-tinged gold nape; and uropygialis has only the red crown and a nape that matches the underparts. In the golden fronted woodpecker the rump is snow white. In the red-bellied the white is speckled with black and the white extended down the middle of the tail. In the Gila it is barred with black like the back, which also extends down the middle of the tail. This clinal variation also continues southward in the other features among several Caribbean and Latin American species.
The other eastern Melanerpes is the red-headed woodpecker, which is quite rare in New Hampshire and decreasing in numbers throughout its range, which attributed to the decline in nut-bearing trees (particularly beeches and chestnuts). The New Hampshire atlas shows confirmed breeding in only two locations in Grafton County as of 1996. I saw it in Danbury (northernmost Merrimack County) back in the 1970s, the only time I’ve ever spotted the species. The atlas writer, Carol Foss, documents their rarity in the state throughout the 20th century and speculates that those seen enter from the west from an established population in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
The genus is united by a suite of physical characteristics, but also by shared behavior. Unlike other woodpeckers, Melanerpes species will fly out to hawk insects on the wing. In addition, their diets include much more plant material than other woodpecker species and they have the tendency to cache stores for lean periods of the year. A western species, the acorn woodpecker is particularly noted for this habit. It drills holes in trees and wedges acorns in the holes for later consumption.
There is a huge red oak in my Sutton backyard. I will be looking for the red-bellied woodpecker after I get my feeders up in this new location.