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

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Happy Holidays!

After three years, I finally found a sapsucker in the Union Bay area. The hint of red on its chest, against the green foliage, seems fitting for a holiday post.

This red-breasted sapsucker has drilled hundreds of holes in its favorite tree in the Arboretum. 

The fresh sap flowing from the holes makes the bark dark and moist, while the older sap has hardened and turned white. 

The white streak in the top left corner is some of the older sap. Here the sapsucker is using its previous holes as "handholds". It is almost like the holes were made to fit. (You may also want notice the little sprig behind the bird's head.)

When the sapsucker leaves the tree, this small Anna's hummingbird comes to take advantage of the free flowing nectar.

My friend and master birder, Marcus Roening, says he usually sees the sapsuckers on young Western Red Cedars. I suspect the bark is thinner when the trees are young.

In this case, the bird has chosen a very unique tree.  You can tell from the sprig we noticed in the earlier photo that the tree is an evergreen. Can you guess what type it is? The bark is unusually thin compared to most native conifers. 

It turns out this is an introduced tree. It is a white fir from europe, which is only here because it is part of the Arboretum collection. With the thin bark, the year-round sap flow and the relatively large size of the tree, this woodpecker has found sapsucker heaven.

A few days later, the sapsucker moved to the left and created a second, parallel sap flow. The first flow reached all the way to the ground, approximately twelve feet below.

Surprisingly, this little bird is working within six feet of one of the busiest trails in the Arboretum. It has created hundreds, if not thousands, of holes and, yet, because it is relatively quiet and blends in well the sapsucker goes unnoticed.

 All the hard work means its wings are going unused, so…

…occasionally, the sapsucker takes a moment to stretch. To minimize the effort of holding on to the tree, the woodpecker uses its tail to support much of its weight.

This photo shows the wear and tear on the tips of the tail feathers. Marcus pointed out that the tips of the primary wing feathers, just above the tail, have tiny arcs of white on them: the white indicates new feathers and quickly wears away. Mature woodpeckers do not replace all their flight feathers at one time or they would be unable to fly during the process. Since this bird is showing white on all of its visible primaries, it is likely a young bird. 

By yesterday the bird had moved even further to the left. While the tree seems like a gold mine for the bird, the bird may not be such a wonderful thing for the tree. I wonder how long the tree will last.

One another note:
This female pine grosbeak came down from the mountains to visit the Arboretum this week.

Sadly, it seemed to prefer the shaded berries, so my photos are marginal at best.

Like many others, I had hoped to catch the grosbeak visiting the berries in the sun. This robin helped me imagine what I missed.

Parting Shot:
Speaking of missing things, can you see the bird in this photo?

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

Larry Hubbell


To see more of sapsucker photos and stories, Click Here.


  1. Fabulous post as always, Larry. The hummingbird using sap flow as nectar is fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing your photos as well as your educational narrative. We at-home birders are most grateful!

  2. Congratulations on the sapsucker, Larry. Fabulous images, and I especially love the one of the Anna's Hummingbird as a secondary user of the sapwells. I admit to having mixed feelings about the tree damage. Our weeping birch looked pretty beaten up after a whole summer of sapsucker activity, but I kinda think it is going to make it now. And I still hope my sapsuckers will return next summer, even if it means some more hard use of that tree.

    1. Thank you (and your sapsuckers) for giving me my first opportunity to see them. It certainly helped make it obvious when I noticed the sap wells in the tree in the Arboretum. Happy Holidays!

  3. Larry, thank you for all of your efforts in 2014! I receive your blog posts via e-mail and look forward to each one. You are helping me learn to keep a sharp eye peeled for nature in the city, for those (like yourself) who have the patience to watch for it!

    1. Thank you for the update and the kind words. It is always great to know my work is having a positive impact. Happy New Year!