There is nothing like closing out a genus or group of birds. Like seeing all the corvids (jays, magpies, crows, and ravens) that exist in the United States or checking off all buteos (broad winged hawks) that breed within our borders.
This can also go beyond our political borders. Last summer I saw both species of condors: California and Andean, although both birds are placed in a separate genus.
Last Saturday I set out with Dickcissel to close out a genus. In this case Sphyrapicus. I had red-breasted, red-naped, and Williamson’s sapsucker. The only sapsucker missing from my list was the easterner: yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). And one had been spending some time in the south in Santa Clara County.
Sewage ponds, landfills, and water treatment plants may not be a place to spend your Saturday morning but if you’re a birder they can be an avian heaven on earth! In this case it was the Santa Clara County Water District in San Jose and the line of pepper trees that lined the Guadalupe River and the percolation ponds. This is where the shy, juvenile, male sapsucker has been spending it’s time.
We first walked the line of pepper trees, willing the shy woodpecker into being. There was no movement and no woodpeckers to speak of, aside from the distant call of a northern flicker. As we headed upstream, towards the dam, Dickcissel called my attention to a bird in a bush. It was not a woodpecker but a thrasher (not the ghost wraith LeConte’s) but California thrasher. The bird sat in the top of the bush, allowing great looks and a few photos.
California thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum.
We turned right at the dam and birded the path that led back to the water district buildings. That’s when we first heard the harsh trill of our first woodpecker! We soon found the source of the call: a female Nuttall’s woodpecker.
This is not the woodpecker you’re looking for!
After watching 75 robins feasting on pepper tree berries we headed back to the river road and the trees that lined the path. After making the 90 degree turn to head back downstream, I saw a woodpecker in a snag right in front of me! “There’s the bird!” I exclaimed, in a quiet sort of way, in order not to spook the shy sapsucker. Too late. The bird bounded into the closest pepper tree.
We surrounded the tree like the LAPD on an SLA safe house but the sapsucker flew off toward the path where we just where birding. We rushed over and got some diagnostic looks before the bird disappeared into foliage.
The yellow-bellied headed back from whence we came and we where on a wild woodpecker chase to get more looks and photos. The sapsucker perched briefly in the first pepper tree and then disappeared again. I went up the path and Dickcissel tried to flank the bird on the pond-side of the trees.
After a short search Dickcissel was on the bird again and I headed over to his position. This time the young male was perched on a near horizontal branch. I noted that this bird is either extremely active or very sedentary. Pete Dunne notes this behavior in the Birding Bible, the Essential Field Guide Companion, that the bird’s behavior is “bi-polar” and we where now observing it’s still stage, where the sapsucker seemed to be impersonating a tree branch, which gave us exceptional looks.
A typical look at the shy sapsucker, always placing himself between a few twigs.
After spending time with the yellow-bellied sapsucker we headed on a short 15 minute to another location in a residential neighborhood to add another sapsucker to our day.
This was a red-naped sapsucker that was spending time in a sycamore tree on the banks of Guadalupe Creek. Within four minutes of searching I spotted the not-so-shy rep-naped sapsucker on The before mentioned sycamore tree.