A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Day

After watching and listening for a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in vain for most of this fall, today I suddenly found four in our neighborhood – a small Sapsucker bonanza.

It was a clear, sunny morning, with a soft blue sky and high veils of white clouds. The air felt gentle and mild, with light, cool breezes, and the sun felt warm. It almost looked and sounded more like spring than very late November. Several birds were singing – Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler – and I even heard one Ruby-crowned Kinglet burst into its quick, complex little song. Dozens of Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grassy roadside along our yard and perched in crape myrtles, young maples and young pines. An American Goldfinch called potato-chip as it flew over, and I saw the first of many flashy bluebirds.

A woodpecker flew to the trunk of a pecan tree on the edge of our front yard and stayed for just a few moments, exploring the bark and looking around, long enough for a clear and colorful view of the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I’ve seen in our yard this fall. It was a colorful male, with brilliant crimson crown and throat, and I watched it until it flew away, very happy to see one again.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter bird for us here, and in past years we’ve been lucky enough to have several around for the season and to see them almost every day from mid September through late spring. This fall has suddenly been quite different. Until today, I had only heard one call and seen one other from a distance.

With its barred black and white back, broad white stripe down the wings, black bib across the chest, dramatic black and white stripes on the face, and brilliant crimson crown, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is distinctly different from all of our other woodpecker species. A male is also marked by a crimson throat. The yellow color of the belly can be very faint, and often looks more white or cream, flecked with black patterns. In warm sunlight, though, the belly glows a subtle mellow-yellow. Despite the colorful touches, the overall pattern and color blend in so well with the trunks and branches of bare winter trees that one can easily escape notice. Its mewing call or the tapping of its bill often are what call attention to its presence.

Almost all of the pecan trees in our neighborhood show several rings of the holes made by Sapsuckers during the winter months. The Sapsuckers make these holes and return to them repeatedly to drink the sap produced by the tree, along with insects, spiders and other prey that may be caught in the sap.

As I walked through the neighborhood later that morning, I passed three more Sapsuckers, all working on the trunks and branches of pecan trees. In every case, it was the mewing calls or delicate tapping sounds that caught my attention first. All three were juveniles or females, with pale throats, not red, but the places where I saw each one were far enough apart so that I think it’s likely there were three different ones.

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