Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Syrian Woodpecker: general ID

Measurements: Length 22-23 cm. Wingspan 34-39 cm. Seems slimmer but not shorter in length, than Great Spotted, but in reality ison average the same size. From the rear the head and neck seem slimmer and longer due to the single vertical black stripe which runs downwards from the crown to the mantle. Syrian Woodpecker is a typical "pied" Dendrocopos woodpecker with mostly black upper-parts, mostly pale under-parts, a black and white head, black wings barred with white, large white oval scapular patches and a pink vent and under-tail coverts. Until recently the widely-used field guides tended to emphasize the lack of a black line (post-auricular stripe) across the ear-coverts as being the main feature separating Syrian from Great Spotted Woodpecker. This despite the fact that many papers on the species, some published decades ago, have emphasized the importance of other features, particularly tail pattern. The face pattern of Syrian Woodpecker is important, but it should not be regarded as the main difference (see below). Overall the black plumage (particularly crown, mantle and back) is matt rather than glossy. The under-side, and upper-side, of the outer rectrices are black with light white bars, unlike Great Spotted where the dark under-tail is always boldly barred white. This is a good feature to look for on flying birds, as this lack of white can be remarkably easy to see, certainly often easier than the face pattern. When seen from behind (e.g. when birds are climbing at a hole entrance) Syrian shows only a vertical black stripe which runs from the crown down the hind-neck to the mantle (in males this line runs from the red nape patch). It does not show the "black-cross" that Great Spotted has at the back of the head which is created by the two post-auricular stripes (one on each side of the face) touching the hind-crown, and thus the sides of the face appear very white. In atypical birds (where there is a hint of an extension from the malar stripe) or in birds moving or holding their heads askew (e.g. when foraging) it may sometimes seem that the nape is reached. The vent and under-tail coverts are pink. Though variable in shade from bird to bird, on some being almost red, this area is never scarlet as in a typical Great Spotted. The pink area also often reaches up onto the lower belly. "Syrians" which show scarlet here should be scrutinized for other plumage features as they may prove to be hybrids, but beware of individual variation. A black malar stripe leads from the lower mandible and meets the lateral neck stripe below the ear-coverts. Though in some birds it may curl up towards the ear-coverts, where it meets the lateral neck stripe, it never crosses the ear-coverts to form a post-auricular stripe. A lateral neck stripe extends from the malar stripe (which it joins below the ear-coverts) across the neck sides to the shoulder and upper breast. It rarely reaches the scapulars, whereas in adult Great Spotted it almost always does via a short connecting bar. Together with the malar stripe it forms a black crescent around the throat, recalling Middle Spotted Woodpecker. These facial features combine to create a more open, whiter appearance than Great Spotted. The white of the face extends in an unbroken sweep from the lores, around the eye (there is also usually more white above the eye than in Great Spotted) across the ear coverts, to the sides and rear of the neck and down to the breast. White spots on the black flight feathers are larger, but fewer in number than in Great Spotted, and form three wing-bars. The outer primaries are black and usually, but not always, with white tips. Though virtually impossible to see in the field (but visible on skins) white barring on the flight feathers usually reach closer to the feather shafts in Syrian. Under-parts are white or buff and lightly streaked with grey. Unlike Great Spotted there is no clear border between the pink under-tail coverts and the white belly, which merge into each other. The flanks are often lightly streaked with grey. But there is much individual variation with some birds being "clean" and others even showing faint barring. Syrian is never as heavily streaked as Middle Spotted and adult Great Spotted shows clean flanks. The forehead is white and this area is slightly larger and cleaner and extends further up onto the fore-crown than on Great Spotted. The lores usually appear whiter and cleaner, too. Nasal bristles are difficult to see in the field but are white or pale, whereas on Great Spotted they are black. The photo above shows an adult female in Budapest, Hungary in 2005 (Szabolcs Kókay). The lack of red on the nape indicates a female. Note the pink undertail, the white face lacking a black post-auricular stripe and also lack of white on the tail, all features separating Syrian from Great Spotted Woodpecker.

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