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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Coming To My Senses

Nature is full of mysteries and surprises just waiting for us to ask the questions which lead to  exciting discoveries. My little discovery this week is at best a working hypothesis, waiting to be proven right or wrong. Even so, I can certainly see why scientists are attracted to the mysteries of the natural world.

My last post from 2016 was titled, 'Tis the Season'. It was all about this red-breasted sapsucker who appeared to have settled in on a single cedar tree for the winter. The hundreds of pre-drilled sap wells were an obvious attraction. With all the deciduous trees having lost their leaves (and their sap flow) for the winter where else would a sapsucker go? 

Two years ago, I watched a red-breasted sapsucker spend the winter in the same cedar tree. It seemed logical to assume that this little sapsucker would be there all winter as well. I was wrong. For the last week, no matter how often I have checked the cedar tree, I could not spot the little red bird. 

I have learned to accept that there is far more going on around me than I can perceive.  Much of what is happening is invisible to my senses. I cannot see the flow of the jet stream which manipulates our weather. I cannot see water flowing underground or the flow of the sap in the trees. I do not hear the high pitched sounds that Ginger, my daughter's dog, can hear. Nor can I smell the complex world of scents which she enjoys. There are even light waves and possibly colors which are invisible to me but highly useful for other lifeforms - like flowers, bees and birds.

The wild creatures which I do see, like birds for instance, simply flash before my eyes and then they are gone. I seldom get to watch a single creature long enough to know where it has been, where it is going and why. Maybe I should not have been surprised at the sapsucker's 'disappearance'.

During the middle of the week, while watching for varied thrush who were eating dried berries in the ash trees, I ran into a fellow photographer. She mentioned that earlier in the day she saw a sapsucker in one of the ashes. 

The next day I too found a sapsucker sitting in one of the ash trees. The ash trees are just to the north of our sapsucker's well-drilled cedar tree. The close proximity caused me to suspect this could be the same red-breasted sapsucker. If so, why did it leave the tree of a thousand holes? What was it doing among the ash trees which have no sap flow in the winter and at this point just a few handfuls of dried up old berries.

It turned out the sapsucker was ignoring the berries while picking through the lichen and moss.

Apparently the bird was looking for insects or larva.

It would grab a beak full of moss and flick it over its shoulder. The behavior reminded me of the way a pileated woodpecker will throw chips over its shoulder while excavating for larva or ants in a dead snag.

In any case I was certainly happy to see the red-breasted sapsucker. I was still a bit confused about why it had apparently left the cedar tree with all of those wonderful sap-sucking holes.

Suddenly, there was a swirl of activity and noise. I heard a crow uttering a dry, croaking sound. As I turned to watch, I noticed the crow was clearly frustrated and trying to avoid being caught by a small accipiter. Most likely, a male cooper's hawk, but possibly a sharp-shinned. 

Lately, I have seen the fast-flying, bird-eating little hawks dash into the ash trees more than once. Given that the trees have been fairly full of berry-eating robins, interspersed with a few varied thrush and an occasional hermit thrush, it is not surprising that the little hawks keep showing up. As soon as the smaller berry-eating birds spot one of the hawks they scatter to the wind. 

Surprisingly, the sapsucker simply rolled over and clung to the side of the branch.

This hiding in plain sight approach seems logical when a sapsucker is surrounded by the shadows, branches and twigs of a fairly dense evergreen tree, like a cedar.

However when the bird is exposed on a leafless limb of an ash tree, this approach seems like a risky maneuver. In the sapsucker's defense, it stopped searching for food and was clearly aiming its upper eye at the sky and watching closely for any sign of the approaching predator.

After a a few moments, both the crow and the hawk seemed to have moved on, and the sapsucker crawled back on top of the branch and continued its search for food. 

At some point in the process I had a 'Eureka' moment - or you could say I came to my senses. I realized that during the last week, when the sapsucker had apparently abandoned the cedar tree, the weather had been consistently below freezing. I suspect that at these unusually low temperatures even the sap of an evergreen tree may stop flowing or at least slow to a trickle. Most likely, the sapsucker went looking for insects or larva because there was little or no sap available, even from a coniferous, evergreen tree.

As our weather warms up I will be watching to see if the little red-breasted sapsucker returns to the tree of a thousand holes. 

Have a great day on Union Bay...where sapsucker's live in the city!



  1. What a great column about a personal favorite of mine. As always you framed these images in some exquisite light, and your observations really shed light on the bird's cold-weather behavior.

    1. Dan,
      Thank you! Maybe some day one of us will spot the nest where your sapsuckers raise their young. That would certainly be exciting to see.
      All the best!

  2. I love this story. Your relating of the sapsucker last time kept the sapsucker in my mind, so it was a delight to find more. Lovely photos. Thank you!

    1. I am glad your are enjoying my work and following along. Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and your beautiful photos! I am looking forward to learning more about our feathered friends.

    1. Thank you! Learning about the wild creatures around us is the first step to understanding and appreciating our gift of life - which we share with the fellow lifeforms of earth.