ID Challenge: Williamson’s Sapsucker vs. Northern Flicker

You’re up in the mountains of Colorado in a Douglas fir forest on the look out for the Williamson’s Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) when all of a sudden a woodpecker flashes past you and lands on a nearby tree. Your first glimpse is of a barred back and you immediately say to yourself “Northern Flicker” and start to turn away. But wait, you could still have a Williamson’s on your hands.

A male Northern Flicker feeding young. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male Williamson’s Sapsucker. Photo by Bob Gunderson, CA, Sierra County, June 2013.

Did you know that the male and female Williamson’s Sapsucker look so remarkably different that 19th century scientists thought they were 2 different species for almost a decade? Let’s look closer.

The male Williamson’s Sapsucker is distinctive and probably not likely to cause many identification problems. It has a glossy black back and chest with a red chin, prominent white wing patch, barred flanks, and a yellow belly; truly a striking bird. The female, by contrast, is mostly black, white, and grey.

Like the Northern Flicker, the female Williamson’s Sapsucker does have a barred back and a black “collar”, but the Flicker’s back is more brownish and it has spotting on the breast and belly instead of more barring. It is more colorful overall with red or yellow wing and tail linings, a red or black mustache (male), and, in the Eastern

A female Williamson’s Sapsucker drinks sap from a recent tree cut at Meyer’s Ranch Open Space. Photo by Jamie Simo.

subspecies, a red nape patch. The female Williamson’s Sapsucker’s single point of color, meanwhile, is a yellow belly, which is often not visible due to its typical posture climbing the trunks of trees where it drills wells from which it eats sap and the insects that get stuck in it. While the Flicker also climbs trees, it spends a great deal of time eating ants off the ground, catching them with its sticky tongue. It is also a bigger bird at 11 to 12 inches versus 8 to almost 10 inches for the Sapsucker.

The sounds the two birds make is also different. Rather than the “wicka wicka” and “clear” calls of the Northern Flicker, the Williamson’s Sapsucker makes a “churring” sound. They appear to be less vocal than the Flicker, however, so you may not even hear them call at all.

So, the next time you spot a fairly large woodpecker with a barred back here in the Colorado mountains, take a second look instead of dismissing it as another Northern Flicker.




Spotlight on Parks: Eldorado Canyon State Park

Close to Boulder and a stone’s throw from the tiny, eclectic town of Eldorado Springs, Eldorado Canyon State Park is a breathtaking place whether you’re biking, hiking, or just taking in the scenery. With more than 500 paths, it’s also one of the premier destinations in the U.S. for technical climbing.

A visitor climbs one of the cliffs at Eldorado Canyon State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Prior to the 1800’s, the park was home to the Ute Indians, but the advancement of white settlers drove them from the area and, by the early 20th century, the Union Pacific Railroad was running nearby bringing with it a booming tourism industry. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the park became a renowned spot for rock climbing, but that reputation helped protect it from becoming a rock quarry. In 1978, the canyon was designed a Colorado State Park.

I chose to explore the park one day after work and I wasn’t disappointed. Two things immediately struck me about it: the roaring of South Boulder Creek beneath those impressive cliffs and the sheer number of dragonflies everywhere. Whenever I moved beneath a tree, they would spring into flight, as numerous as raindrops.

South Boulder Creek rapids. Due to changes wrought by the 2013 floods, most boating is prohibited for safety reasons. Photo by Jamie Simo.

A short, narrow path along the river allows close access to the spray off the water; a welcome cool down on a hot day. This was my first destination. Within this riparian zone, I encountered a pair of Lazuli Buntings and an inquisitive Yellow Warbler. Harebells grew in cracks in the cliff face, delicately bending in the breeze. It was truly lovely.

A little farther up the road from the first parking lot is the beginning of the Fowler and Rattlesnake Gulch Trails. I took the Fowler Trail, an easy, wheelchair accessible pedestrian route, which took me along the cliff edge. This gave me a good view of the river and valley below. Although Golden Eagles nest in the cliffs and often several of the climbing paths are closed seasonally due to their presence, I didn’t see any on my hike. I did see several soaring Turkey Vultures and a multitude of White-throated Swifts and Violet-Green Swallows, however.

Fowler Trail opens up into a more shrubby area and Yellow-breasted Chats, MacGillivray’s Warblers, and Spotted Towhees made their appearance as I got even farther up the trail. Mammals were few and far between, but I did see a chipmunk. I wasn’t able to finish the Fowler Trail before I had to turn around and head back, but I’ll definitely be returning.

A MacGillivray’s Warbler checks me out. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Entrance to the park is $8 a day or $70 for an unlimited annual pass that will get you into all of Colorado’s State parks. Eldorado Canyon is for day-use only, but you can consult the park’s website to find other nearby camping spots. Additional fees are also available on the website.

A weekday evening, particularly an overcast one, is a great time to visit the park. As the park’s website warns, weekends and holidays in the summer are very busy and parking is limited, so plan accordingly. Consisting of 1,488 acres, there’s a lot of park to explore and it would be a shame to miss out on it!