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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Eric The Red Returns

In early November, this red-breasted sapsucker was still drilling for sap in a deciduous tree. The tree's leaves had already turned yellow and about half were on the ground. I wondered how long the sap would flow and when the sapsucker would switch to evergreen trees.

This bird worked one side of the trunk...

...and then the other.

While working in the upper half of the tree, it switched back and forth between the three main trunks. 

Just like pileated woodpeckers, the sapsucker would turn and pick its new destination before it took to the air. Some feeding spots were riddled with holes life this...

...while others were relatively new mining efforts.

I was lucky to catch this shot of the bird hugging the tree. I believe it was hiding from a larger bird, like a crow, passing overhead. It also looks like it may have been listening for the sound of a insect, moving inside the tree.

From the side, it is easy to see how woodpeckers use their tails like the third leg of a tripod.

From the back it looks like the bird may even be sticking one of its tail feathers into a sap well, for a little extra traction. 

This is a photo from last winter when we had red-breasted sapsuckers working in three different coniferous trees in the Arboretum. A number of us, watched these birds from mid-December through mid-February. I have been curious ever since about when and if they would return to the evergreen trees. This last week I got at least a partial answer.

Thanksgiving morning was the first day when Duck Bay was nearly completely covered with ice. I suspect the cold night had a hand in slowing the sap flow in the deciduous trees. The slow flow may have started sapsuckers thinking about their alternatives.

Monday one of the sapsuckers returned to this spruce. The dried white sap is leftover "frosting" from last winter's efforts. The dark wet spots are caused by sap flowing from new or freshened excavations. 

This sapsucker has been at the tree off and on all week. This morning, in the steady rain, the sapsucker appeared warm and dry stationed a few feet off the ground, under the protecting boughs. It is interesting to note that in the winter the sapsuckers seem to work closer to the ground than during the summer. Logically, if the sap for the whole tree is coming through the trunk then there most be a greater volume and larger flows towards the bottom of the tree.

It turns out that this same tree is the one which was used last winter by this red-naped sapsucker, whom I called Sugar. Red-naped sapsuckers do not normally winter here so it would be a real surprise if she returned this year. This same tree was also "shared" by a red-breasted sapsucker who I called, Eric the Red. Apparently, Eric has returned. Last year, the two birds had a difference of opinion around the concept of sharing. Eric is up to his old tricks, of chasing away competitors. However, so far this year, it is just hummingbirds and ruby-crowned kinglets going after "his" sap. To see more details, from last winter, Click Here.

I have been watching but so far neither of the other two red-breasted sapsuckers, or Sugar, have returned. It will be interesting to see when and if they make it back. I can imagine them working to extract the last little bit of sap from a sweet and tasty, deciduous tree. I suspect such a tree would be situated in a nice warm south-facing location and would still have a few yellow leaves left and a tiny flow of sap. I hope at least a couple more sapsuckers return for the winter.

Note: Last year one of the gardeners in the Arboretum asked me to mention that if we stand on the bark chips near the spruce trees it compresses the bark. This slows the decomposition and the release of nutrients for the trees. In the case of these trees, which are being actively "mined" by sapsuckers, kinglets and hummingbirds (and last year squirrels as well) I suspect they need all the nutrients they can get. I am doing my best to stay off the wood chips.


Raptor Classes:

Bud Anderson, renown raptor guru from the Falcon Research Group, will once again be teaching evening classes starting in January. According to his website he is offering classes in Mt. Vernon and Bellingham. Last year, he mentioned possibly holding a class in Seattle. I suspect if enough of us send him checks for his class and stated our preference for a Seattle location, he might be persuaded.

In any case, whether the class is here or further north, Bud's extensive knowledge and incredible love of raptors makes his classes the best birding investment I have ever made.

For more details, Click Here.


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


Silhouette Challenge:
Can you determine what type of bird this is? The answer will be in next week's post.

Note: To be perfectly fair, this photo was taken on Puget Sound, instead of around Union Bay. However, one of these species is very common on Union Bay and has been featured in many Union Bay Watch posts. The other species is in the same family. This challenge is an opportunity to learn to distinguish the two closely-related, family members.

Last week's silhouette belonged to a red-tailed hawk. The width of the wings relative to their length distinguishes this bird's outline from that of a bald eagle. The bald eagle's wings are visibly longer, relative to their width. The shortness of the tail distinguishes this silhouette from that of a cooper's hawk. There may be other raptors with a similar silhouettes, but the red-tailed hawk is by far the most common around Union Bay.


  1. Good I.D. material as well as info on the life of sapsuckers. Keep it up, Larry.

    Max Warner Tacoma

    1. Thank you! By the way this week's Silhouette photo was taken in Tacoma. Can you guess were?

  2. Great images and information on the sapsuckers. As you know, Larry, we have a particular weeping birch on our Whidbey Island property the sapsuckers virtually "own" all summer, rarely leaving unless temporarily dislodged by a squirrel. I stopped noticing sapsuckers in October and concluded they had left the area till next summer, but the other day I was startled by a rare bird strike on the kitchen window. My heart sank when I saw it was a Red-breasted Sapsucker lying in the flower box by the window. It rested for some time, then recovered (seemingly) and flew away. So it seems the sapsuckers are still with us, possibly having moved to evergreen trees as you suggested. And I hope this particular one can make a full recovery.

    1. Thank you! I am relieved to hear the sapsucker took to the air again. That shows that all the body parts critical for flying still work, which has to be a good sign. It is really special that you have these wonderful birds in your yard for so much of the year. Congratulations!

  3. Thanks again, Larry. Keep it up!

    1. You are welcome. :-) I am glad you enjoyed the post!