Red-bellied visitor

On chilly winter days, we find ourselves watching our bird feeders more than usual, but we have not yet tired of seeing our favorite regular visitors. A busy flock of more than forty goldfinches dominates the scene most of the time. Half a dozen of them hold onto the feeder, lounging on the little perches and leaning out aggressively with open beak to chase away others who try to land there. When the chickadee flies in, he grabs a seed and is off again in a flash, so quickly the goldfinches hardly have time to object, but when a tufted titmouse, who is a little bigger than a goldfinch, flies in, a goldfinch sometimes has to give way. The downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker are more interested in the suet cage than the seed feeder, so there is rarely any conflict with the goldfinches, but this morning a hairy woodpecker was in the mood for a seed snack. He clung vertically to the tube shaped seed feeder and was so large he took up the whole thing. A feisty goldfinch tried to sneak onto one of the perches, but when he found himself facing the sharp beak of the woodpecker he beat a fast retreat.

After watching our feeders for many years, we have come to know what to expect, so we were startled this morning when an unfamiliar bird showed up. It flew down from the maple tree, barely touched the suet cage, and then abruptly fled back up to the tree. After doing this a couple of times, the bird finally landed and began to eat suet, but we had seen enough by then to know it was a red-bellied woodpecker. While not a first for our yard, we have seen this woodpecker here only once before, when one stopped by for just a moment. The bird on our suet feeder was noticeably larger than the hairy woodpecker, and she was mostly a lovely soft creamy tan color (field guides describe her as gray, but to us she looked tan — perhaps because of the light), with black and white horizontal barring on her back and wings. Bright red feathers, with a yellowish tint, covered the back of her neck and head, but the top of the head was soft gray, which indicated she was female. On males, the red extends over the top of the head. Her head was smoothly rounded, unlike the head of the downy or the hairy woodpecker, and there was a blush of red on the front of her face, at the base of her very long sharp bill. We could not see the blush of red on her belly, which was facing the feeder, and which is a subtle field mark at best.

Later in the day, we were out in the yard when we heard an unfamiliar churrr call coming from the top of the maple tree. Looking up, we saw a couple of woodpeckers hitching themselves around on the trunk, and then a hairy woodpecker flew down, chased by the red-bellied woodpecker. In that moment, it appeared the visitor, slightly larger than the local resident, might be trying to take over. Red-bellied woodpeckers have an advantage over other woodpeckers in that they are adaptable, and are able to eat a more varied diet than other woodpeckers eat, feeding on such things as acorns, nuts, fruit, berries, seed, and even sap. There are records of red-bellied woodpeckers chasing sapsuckers away from trees with flowing sap, and when the stomach contents of one red-bellied were examined the bones of a small tree frog were found.

The normal range of the red-bellied woodpecker is in the southeastern part of the country, as far west as central Texas up to central South Dakota. On the East Coast, they normally live as far north as southern New England, but in recent years they have been seen in Maine, mostly in the southern or coastal parts of the state.

We wonder if the elegant looking bird who has been visiting our yard is here to stay, or is just passing through. If she decides to stay, it will be interesting to watch how she fits in to local bird society.

Jean Preis is a resident of Bridgton, and lives next to Highland Lake.

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