Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm Gonna Git You Sapsucka!

Monday, November 30, 2009
My crummy image of a beautiful adult male yellow-bellied sapsucker.

It's been a great fall for yellow-bellied sapsucker sightings around the farm. Some years we get one or two sappies that stick around through the fall. This year, given the number of migrant sapsuckers we've seen, I'm hoping we'll have a handful of wintering birds. I'm not sure our trees are happy about this, though they have nothing, really, to worry about.

On several occasions I've seen three individual YBSAs at once, swooping from tree to tree in that unique sapsucker way. Nearly all of the birds we've seen have been youngsters (birds born last spring/summer) and we can tell this by their splotchy, ill-defined plumage. On Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend a beautiful adult male yellow-bellied sapsucker showed up. I had stepped out onto the back deck to check the temperature and heard a light tapping coming from the nearby weeping willow tree. When the male peeked around from the trunk, the morning sun caught his red crown and throat (adult females have a white throat) and I bolted back inside the house for my camera.

This guy had a set of wells going on each trunk of the willow.

In my experience, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are very quiet birds. They seem to lack the red-bellied woodpecker's zest for life, the downy and hairy's constant activity, and the flicker's flashy flight style. Sapsuckers can be easily overlooked, which is why it's so helpful to know the audible clues to their presence.

This young female looks like a bump on a birch trunk, doesn't she?

The tapping noise they make when excavating sap wells sounds like someone absent-mindedly tapping a pencil on a desk: tap-tap-tap —pause—tap-tap —pause—tap-tap-tap-tap. It is irregular in its rhythm and soft enough to go unnoticed.

Sapsuckers do vocalize quite regularly, making a soft, wheezy, descending meearr that sounds somewhat catlike. Our birds have been mewing a lot—perhaps scolding each other, trying to figure out whose territory this is going to be for the winter.

The long vertical white wing stripe is an excellent field mark for all of our sapsucker species.

We've watched the sapsuckers make their rounds, visiting their sap wells like trappers checking their trap lines. On Saturday I noticed three other woodpecker species visiting the newly drilled sap wells in the willow: a downy, a hairy, and a red-bellied woodpecker. The male sapsucker actually tried to drive off the hairy, when it was caught poaching a drink at a ring of wells.

A few neat factoids about sapsuckers:
  • They drill lines of small holes in trees, causing the tree to emit some sap to protect itself. The sapsuckers then revisit these wells on a regular basis to consume the sap and any insects attracted to it. The holes are visible scars in the tree bark, permanent evidence that a sapsucker was here at least once!
  • It is thought that sapsuckers do not do much harm to healthy trees. In fact some ornithologists believe that sapsuckers prefer to drill holes in trees that are already under stress because they produce sap that is higher in certain nutrients. Still many sapsuckers are persecuted, especially by orchard owners.
  • Sapsuckers don't actually "suck" sap—they lap it up with their tongues, which have short feather-like projections on the end. Sapsucker tongues function more like a brush than a straw.
  • Dozens of other birds and many animals and insects will visit sapsucker wells to drink the slightly sweet sap.
  • In spring, early arriving hummingbirds rely on sapsucker wells when plant nectar and insects are unavailable.
  • Sapsuckers are avid migrants, with some birds reaching Central America and the islands in the Caribbean.

A very young female—no red at all yet.

I've also seen our sapsuckers perch nearby our feeding stations, which are always stocked with sunflower seed, peanuts, suet, and suet dough. I'm hoping they will "tap into" this additional source of food so we can enjoy them all winter long.

Only rarely have we had a sapsucker as a regular feeder visitor. This is an adult female.

Here's a very informative page about the yellow-bellied sapsucker.


On November 30, 2009 at 3:35 PM RoyHarveyCT said...

I have seen countless comments on how hard it is to see the red belly of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but I have never had all that much difficulty seeing it. However I have never seen the same level of complaint about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, though I have never seen a hint of yellow on one. How about showing the belly on one of these?

On November 30, 2009 at 5:09 PM Katie F. said...

Love the comment. Cheered me right up. Thanks, Bill!

On November 30, 2009 at 5:09 PM Katie F. said...

Whoops, I meant love the title! The comment was good too. Those durn woodpeckers and their hidden bellies!

On November 30, 2009 at 10:42 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

Thought you might mention their penchant for konking themselves on plate glass windows. I had one literally bounce off the protective crop netting over the studio window today--he'd have been a goner for sure. And I believe it was your gorgeous adult male. But he's fine, thanks to the screening.

Luverly post, B.

On December 1, 2009 at 3:53 PM Swampy said...

One of the Barred Owls here at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest apparently followed through on your threat! Images and details on our blog at

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