Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A new acquaintance

One of the best ways to see birds is to sit quietly in a place that they like to visit, usually for food. One of my favorite places to do this is Santa Rosa Oddfellows Cemetery. It's an open, grassy place with a mix of native and non-native trees in a central area. I can spend hours in shade or sun and observe the comings and goings of songbirds stopping by to forage on the ground or in spruce, oak and an old, gnarly Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle). There are also some hawks that hunt the area, Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) in winter and American crows (Corvis brachrhynchos) and Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica).

One gray winter morning I watched a juvenile White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) stop to rest in the pepper tree. A larger, shadowy figure appeared in my peripheral vision and piqued my curiosity. Even in the murky light I could see that the bird had a red head, not something I see on any of the birds that frequent our area. I crept closer and closer, until I could see enough detail to do some rough sketches to take home and use to help me identify this lovely and, to me, exotic bird. While sketching I noticed that the tree was riddled with neatly drilled holes in tidy rows, something I hadn't ever seen before. I hoped that the pattern might help me identify the bird making them.

Once home, I looked in my copy of Sibley's Guide to the Birds and was able to easily identify the bird as a Red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), a bird that drills neat rows and columns of holes in living trees and returns later to drink the sap and eat any insects that may have been attracted to the sap. This led me to hope that I might have another chance to see her. When I arrived the bird was working the tree as though she'd never left. Closer examination showed that the Pepper tree was neatly pierced up and down it's trunk and larger limbs. This bird had clearly been around for a while.

I've returned several times, at different times of day, and most of the time have found the sapsucker working the tree. The last time I was there, an Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) flew in noisily and began drinking sap from one of the holes the Sapsucker had drilled. The Sapsucker immediately moved to another limb of the tree and waited. The intruder continued to drink for a few minutes then flew off. As soon as he was gone the Sapsucker returned as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

 Surprisingly, this sapsucker was one of the least shy birds I've encountered. Each time I've gone to observe her I've been able to sit, as long as I like, very near where she's working. She checks on me every now and then but mostly keeps drilling. She often stops and appears to rest while watching the comings and goings of a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii), several Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) and the occasional Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga cornonata) as they forage nearby.

Learn more about Red-breasted sapsuckers:


  1. Lovely story and sketches, Debbie. I live very near a wooded area, in farmland in southern B.C. We have quite a few of the sapsuckers and similar woodpeckers here. At this time of year, they must be very hungry or starting to nest, as there are always some days I can hear one of them banging away on the shed's metal chimney. The first time I heard it, I was quite startled, and went out to see what was making the noise. I caught it in the act!

  2. Debbie, thank you so much for posting this! It's wonderful, beautiful, informative.

  3. Delightful sketches and wonderful information. I just got a great app for my iPhone of bird songs for use in identification. Can't wait to try it out.

  4. I love watching sapsuckers work. I've even had a humming bird come along and help itself to a drink of sap. ... and during nesting season I've seen an adult come in with a beak full of bugs and goober the bugs in sap before flying off to the nest hole.


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