Ellen, aka Lefty, Leverenz e-mailed me and attached two photos of downy woodpeckers that she had seen at her Chilmark feeders. She did so because the bellies of the birds visiting her feeders were not that lovely stark white we normally expect on these little woodpeckers. Instead the bellies of these birds were a dirty tannish color. Several days later I visited Larry Hepler and Alice Early at their Quansoo home and they mentioned that they had some dirty-bellied birds as well. I was able to see an Early-Hepler woodpecker and it had the usual black and white back but a decidedly tan belly.

Both Lefty and I checked the bird books and discovered that downy woodpeckers in the Pacific Northwest have grayish white under parts. Lefty found reference to downy woodpeckers with tan under parts in Newfoundland. I doubt that birds from the Pacific Northwest are on the Vineyard, although you never know. It would be more likely to have visitors from Newfoundland.

I then went to a series called The Birds of North America which is a series of comprehensive summaries of current knowledge about all breeding birds of North America. There I discovered that not only are there differences in the belly colors of these little woodpeckers depending on where they are located, but also size difference. The most interesting tidbit I found. however, was that “white portions of downy woodpeckers plumage may occasionally acquire yellowish, blackish, reddish, or other coloration from contact with unusual environmental stains . . . .”

I am here to say that, in case you hadn’t noticed it, this is the spring of the pollen here on the Vineyard. I don’t ever remember seeing, inhaling, cleaning up and sneezing from so much pollen as this year. A neighbor down the Quansoo Road from me told me that she was relaxing on her deck reading and looked up and noticed a cloud of pollen falling from the sky. “What am I doing here?” she said with scratchy eyes and runny nose. My theory is that the downy woodpeckers may have been stained from pollen, just a theory.

It was interesting to note that downy woodpeckers from the north are larger than those in the south and that they are not migratory. That means the Vineyard population is here year-round. If we start seeing more and more of them with tan bottoms every month of the year we will know it is not the pollen. In that case we may end up having a Vineyard downy woodpecker that has different plumage from downy woodpeckers “in America” (off-Island). Let us check the plumage of our downy woodpeckers this later summer, fall and winter to see if the dirty-bellied birds clean up their act.

Bird Sightings:

A Dirty-bellied Downy Woodpecker. — Lanny McDowell

Rob Culbert’s first bird walk from the high school on May 23 included stops at the Head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs and Thimble Farm. At the Lagoon he spotted red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, veery, wood ducks, Cooper’s hawks, northern parula and black billed cuckoo. At Duarte’s Pond by Thimble Farm they added a solitary sandpiper. May 30 the group was greeted by a great crested flycatcher calling at the high school. At State Beach in Oak Bluffs they had horned lark as well as the regulars in the area. At their house in Vineyard Haven Wendy Anne and Rob twice spotted ruby-throated hummingbirds in their yard. This is a first for the Culberts’ yard. June 8 Rob was at Felix Neck and heard ovenbirds and Baltimore orioles.

At the other end of the Island, Bob Shriber had a black-billed cuckoo in Aquinnah as well as turkey vultures on June 5.

Lefty Leverenz reports that along with the dirty bellied downy woodpeckers she has a pair of Carolina wrens and white-breasted nuthatches nesting in her yard. She also has tufted titmouse and the rest of the regulars including an abundance of gray catbirds.

Conomo was back on the Vineyard on June 4 and was reported over Tisbury Great Pond, but took off for Connecticut again. Guess the weather and fishing wasn’t good enough for him yet.

Dick Jennings took a photo of a female red knot on Norton Point and Lanny McDowell spotted six red knots flying over Norton Point on June 6.

Happy and Steve Spongberg birded Great Rock Bight on June 7 and were happily surprised to spot three American redstarts and hear more. They also spotted a black and white warbler.

Gus Ben David of the World of Reptiles and Birds reported that he has six young barn owls in residence. Gus has been conducting a survey Islandwide of barn owls and determined that there are between 15 and 18 active barn owl nests on the Vineyard. He added that the Vineyard in its heyday had 37 pairs of barn owls. Then the harsh winters of 2003, 2004 and 2005 took their toll on the barn owl population. Gus is encouraged by his new survey and feels the population of barn owls is rebounding.


Please share your bird news by e-mail birds@mvgazette.com or on the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922.