Last week I was in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, on a visit over the holiday weekend. It’s always fun to get a chance to see and hear the eastern birds I grew up with that we don’t have out west – Blue Jays, Eastern Towhees, Eastern Phoebes, and all the rest. This time, the highlight was spotting a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest just twenty feet or so off a trail.
It was the very noisy begging calls of the woodpecker chicks hidden inside that first gave away the nests’ location, and once we stopped and watched we were able to spot both parents coming and going. Here’s Dad emerging from the cavity with a beakful of something, probably cleaning things out a bit – this was actually the only time we saw him and it was hard to get a good picture:
It was Mom (without the extensive red forehead and chin) who kept coming and going with food, posing for photos.
I’m normally not great at finding nests (though I seem to be having more luck than usual this year), so this was a treat. Now I’m back home in Walla Walla, and with high temperatures climbing into the triple digits this weekend, I’m not planning on hiking again for a little while!
Some of our woodpeckers – Downy, Hairy, Pileated – are year-round residents in the North Woods. Others – the Northern Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – are migrants, only here for the breeding season. Both of the migratory woodpeckers have just turned up here on campus in the last week or so, and my first inkling that the sapsuckers had arrived was hearing their distinctive irregular drumming. Taptaptap-tap-tap–tap—tap! (Click here to listen.)
This morning while I was rambling around a male flew in and landed on a nearby trunk at eye-level, posing for a few photos.
I’ve written before about sapsuckers’ interesting foraging habits – as their name suggests, they drill small holes in tree trunks and feed off the sap. I like these guys. That red cap and throat are a beautiful pop of color.
After a long, snowy winter, it is awfully nice to see (and hear) the spring birds returning to the forest.
Last spring I was in the woods with a group of kids and stopped to point out rows of small, neat holes that had been drilled into the trunk of a paper birch, standing out dark against the white bark. “That’s from a sapsucker,” I told them. We’d already looked at the gaping cavities the Pileated Woodpeckers had excavated in the nearby cedars, but now I explained how Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, another woodpecker species, make small, shallow holes like this and ate the sap that seeps out, rather than tearing the wood apart in search of insects.
“So is their favorite tree the sugar maple?” asked one of the kids.
What a good question – and not one I knew the answer to. We talked a bit about what trade-offs sapsuckers would face when selecting a tree, like the sugar content of the sap versus the hardness of the wood, and then we moved on to something else. The idea stuck with me, though. Do sapsuckers have a favorite tree species? What factors affect which trees they make their sap wells in?
Continue reading “How Does a Sapsucker Select a Tree?”