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Sapsuckers might be satisfying sap cravings nearby

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By Sharon Wootton
Sorting through firewood rounds often yields something beside splinters and alien-looking growths.
This time it was a red-breasted sapsucker's calling card: rows of small holes spaced fairly evenly apart in the bark, all the way around.
This medium-sized (8 to 9 inches) bird in the woodpecker family has a red head and red breast. Another identifying mark is the long vertical white stripe along the visible edge of each black wing.
It's the only sapsucker that is a common resident of Western Washington.
Normally they live in coniferous forest and deciduous woodlands or riparian woods, but in winter, they come even lower in elevation to orchards (they eat fruit and insects), parkland and occasionally into urban settings.
In my area, I'm most likely to see the drill work in alder, birch and willow trees, although I confess I've never gone through coniferous woods in search of sapsucker holes.
I've seen various attempts at describing the sounds of a sapsucker, and I'll not add another failure to the list. The first time I heard a sapsucker, I immediately thought of a catbird. The best description of one sound is a "catlike mewing keeah," in Paul Bannick's "The Owl and the Woodpecker," which also has a CD of bird songs.
To hear calls, go to and type in red-breasted sapsucker.
While the pileated woodpecker drills and tears gaping holes in trees, the sapsucker leaves its dainty holes in horizontal bands. Their slower drumming is quiet compared to other woodpeckers.
Just as you revisit your favorite restaurant, the sapsucker revisits its drilled trees when the sap starts to flow from the holes. It has a tongue tailored to the task, with stiff hairs that collect the nutritious sap.
The sap is an attractive trap for insects, so the sapsucker can get a dose of protein along with the sap.
Many woodpeckers love ants and the sapsucker is no exception. Sapsuckers also eat seeds and berries.
Apparently rufous hummingbirds are known to hang out with sapsuckers to have an effort-free meal of sugar-rich sap before spring flowering plants produce nectar.
The downside to sapsuckers is that they can drill so many holes in a tree that they can kill it. Sapsucker-discouraging methods include string with foil or flags tied about a foot apart at the holes, hanging a couple of colorful beach balls (presumably to blow in the wind), and hanging burlap around the tree.
Shooting a protected species is not an option.
Bird sightings: Mild and dry weather offer more than the usual chances to comfortably go birding in December. Here are a few recent bird sightings:
In Stanwood, a great egret interacted with a great blue heron on the pond near the dike barricade at the end of Eide Road. A single greater yellowlegs, short-eared owls and bushtits were in the same area.
A female long-tailed duck was spotted under the Edmonds fishing pier; and on Smith and Spencer Islands during the Christmas Bird Count, counters tallied 76 Lincoln's sparrows, many raptors, a Harlan's red-tailed, Virginia rails, 50 dowitchers and nine Western meadowlarks.
Going up: According to a Duke University study, tropical birds are moving to higher elevations because of climate change, but they may not be migrating fast enough.
Most birds will follow vegetation changes, but dispersal by seed may be slower than the warming that drives the birds to higher elevations.
Tropical birds at this point may be caught between moving to higher elevations to keep cool and outrunning the required habitat or stay with traditional habitat and overheat.
Now there's being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or
Story tags » Bird-watching

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