Friday, October 23, 2009

Sapsucker Season


To a large degree, seeing interesting birds depends on plain old good luck.

A few minutes ago I went to the kitchen to fix a cup of tea. As usual, while the kettle heated I scanned the backyard feeders to see what might be out there. A few Mourning Doves, the little flock of annoying House Sparrows, and a pretty red male Northern Cardinal. A woodpecker flew past the kitchen window to the suet feeder in the wisteria, swooping so close to the window that it was nothing more than a dark blur.

A dark blur? Hmm…that’s different! Dark. Chunky. That’s not a Downy Woodpecker, which is very small and mostly white… And it’s definitely not a large, slender, mostly-white Hairy Woodpecker… And the brown Flickers never come up this close to the house… Oh boy, it’s a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker! Wait! There’s another one! Two Sapsuckers!
As I watched these two pretty birds explore the wisteria arbor just outside the window, then move to the elm tree where more feeders are hung, I made a mental check-mark on the seasonal birding checklist that I maintain in my memory (I’m a “listless” birder, as I wrote about HERE). I’ve been waiting and hoping that a Sapsucker would arrive here soon, and here were two. Lucky day!

In late October 2006, a single juvenile Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker stopped at our suet feeder for a few days, feeding and resting during its migration. A single male (the same bird?) also stopped by briefly in October 2007. I didn’t see one in the fall of 2008, but a single adult male Sapsucker (the same bird?) arrived in early January 2009 for a lengthier stay, creating havoc among our flock of resident woodpeckers. (Read HERE about that bird, its remarkable feeding behavior, and the resulting “Woodpecker Wars.”)

The Sapsuckers at our feeders this morning are juveniles, sporting intricate, very attractive black, brown, and white plumage. Their underparts show the soft yellow wash that gives them their “Yellow-Bellied” name. (They are very assertive, if not aggressive, certainly not “cowardly” as we might associate with “yellow-bellied.”) On one bird, I could see bits of red emerging on throat and nape, marking it as a male, and enabling me to differentiate the two individuals easily. I wonder if they are offspring of last year’s adult? Did he lead them here to “drop them off” at a known food source?

As striking as their plumage is, these young birds blend in beautifully with the vari-colored and highly textured bark of the elm tree where the suet feeders hang. When they are still, they can be hard to spot. They are quiet birds, too, especially compared to the noisy Red-Bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers, which typically announce their arrival with loud calls.

By the time I head back to the kitchen for my next cup of tea, these two travelers might already be gone, continuing on their southern migration. Or perhaps, like last year’s visitor, they’ll stay for several days or weeks. Either way, it’s a thrill to see them.

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