Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Summer of the Sapsucker

Dan Pedersen of Whidbey Island writes the weekly blog, Off the Rails. His summer columns are mostly about the birds and wildlife of his wooded setting near Langley. At other times he tackles UFO's, Captain Vancouver's lost anchor, or anything else that crosses his mind. Dan writes...

Red-breasted Sapsuckers are a rare treat around Union Bay, I understand. These brilliant, red woodpeckers are seen, but not often, and even less their brown-headed young.

So Larry thought it might be fun to share some images of the juveniles as they gain their colors.

Earlier this summer when Larry visited Whidbey Island, I promised him a guaranteed photo op of a Red-breasted Sapsucker. I was pretty sure he would take the bait and sure enough, he showed up here a few minutes later. So did the sapsuckers. I've watched them almost daily from June - September.

June is when the first brilliantly red adult showed up in our coniferous setting. I nearly tripped over it as it foraged in our garden compost, oblivious to me. I soon realized I was hearing it daily, with its distinctive "sucking"-type vocalizations, and that another adult was answering. By July I had found the mother lode, a specific weeping birch treeing our front yard where they had drilled almost a to too-like network of round holes in neat rows, and some large, rectangular sap wells to boot.

And now it wasn't just adults any more.

It was two brown-headed juveniles as well, proof that the adults had nested nearby.

Over time the brown coloring of the juveniles has evolved to red.

I have been watching that happen…

...for the last two months.

Sapsuckers are surprisingly docile and tolerant when waiting by their wells. Stay back a respectful 15 feet or so and they'll go about their business, clinging to the tree for hours in a trance. Get too close and they may shimmy around to the other side and pretend you aren't there.

Sapsuckers are well-named, since they consume the tree sap and also any insects that get caught in it. They are considered a keystone species because other birds and wildlife also feeds from their wells. such as Rufous Humming birds and Douglas Squirrels.

I watched a Douglas Squirrel chase the sapsuckers away and lick the sap wells at leisure.

Orchardists aren't terribly fond of sapsuckers because of the punishment they can inflict on trees. I've read contradictory accounts - that they kill many trees or, on the other hand, hardly any healthy ones. This was a rough summer for deciduous trees on Whidbey Island, with a plague of caterpillars defoliating them earlier in the season, I'm curious whether our weeping birch will survive. I'm guessing it will but if not, well, these birds were a lot of fun.

I could find my sapsuckers at almost any hour of the day because one or two were almost always on the tree - clinging to the trunk. We have only one birch in our yard and I've read that this is a favorite of sapsuckers. They also like red maples and hemlocks.

I wrote about the sapsucker on my blog a few weeks ago and my neighbor said it cleared up a mystery for her, because one of her struggling ornamentals was covered with holes as well, and sapsuckers were tending them. She hadn't identified the unfamiliar bird.

As we move into mid-September, sightings of the sapsuckers are becoming much more rare. I've watched the brown juveniles turn increasingly red. They are nowhere near as striking as the adults, but clearly transforming themselves before my eyes.

I expect I'll see little or nothing more of them until perhaps some frigid afternoon next winter when severe weather drives them down to the lowlands in search of fruit. In years past I've watched them cling to our snow-covered huckleberry bushes and strip the fall's crop of berries. They'll be welcome here.

Note: Click the link to visit Dan Pedersen's blog, http://pedersenwrites.blogspot.com/. To receive a link by email each time he posts, send your request to dogwood@whidbey,com 

By The Bay:

Our local Seattle author, Woody Wheeler, has just announced that the debut of his new book, "Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window" will take place in October at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You can learn more about the book at:

If you look close I have heard you might even find one of my photos in the book. (I just ordered my copy, but it has not arrived yet.)

A Parting Shot:

While visiting Dan's place I happened to catch one of the Sapsuckers in action and thought you might enjoy the photo.

By the way I have never seen a Sapsucker in or around Union Bay. If you are aware of one in the area I would love to here all about it! 

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature lives in the city!



  1. Hi Larry
    I'm not sure why you haven't been able to find Sapsuckers at Union Bay because Juanita Bay Park has a large population of them and as the crow flies Juanita isn't really all that far away.
    They can be found there pretty much all year but the best time to find them in large numbers up close and personal is mid March when they are courting, they really aren't known too be shy birds but during courtship time they are so busy trying to impress each other they could care even less about people and will land in trees within a couple feet of you standing there, just listen for them drumming on aluminum signs scattered throughout the park along the boardwalks and you will find where they are gathered.

    Happy birding
    Greg Hensen

    1. Very nice photo! Thank you for the heads up on Juanita Bay. It is funny how birds seem to have preferred locations. I still haven't heard from anyone who has seen a Sapsucker around Union Bay.

  2. I was at camp Solomon Schecter in Tumwater last weekend and I saw a few red breasted sapsuckers in the trees. I've also seen them around 196th in Lynnwood. They are probably the easiest woodpeckers to spot because of their coloration.

    1. Greg reminds me that my first spot in lynnwood was at the alder wood mall parkway exit where the sapsuckers drum on the aluminum signs in the spring.

    2. Thank you for the Lynnwood locations. I will have to stop by next time I am in the area.:-)

  3. Thank you for the fantastic pictures, Larry. I need to come down to Union Bay sometime and check out the birds! We live just east of Gold Bar in the foothills of the Cascades. I often sit in our back yard with my binoculars and watch the birds we have out here.

    Keep up the fantastic work and thanks so much for sharing with us all!

    Ken GreyEagle

    1. Ken,

      Thank you! However I must mention that these Sapsucker photos are from Whidbey Island. I have still not been able to spot one around Union Bay maybe i am just looking in the wrong places. :-)