Keep an Ear Out For Sapsuckers

Filed in Birding, Expert Articles by on November 12, 2013

TWG_story_birding10imgA few weeks ago, I was taking a quiet stroll through a spruce and fir forest when I heard the familiar tapping of a nearby woodpecker.

Not being in any particular hurry, I let my ears guide me to the tree from which the sound was emanating. I tiptoed close and moved slowly so as not to scare away the woodpecker. Oftentimes while trying to catch a view, woodpeckers will conveniently position themselves on the backside of the tree just out of your sight.

The pecking sound continued strong and steady. As I worked my way around a dead Engelmann spruce I was surprised to find that the woodpecker was not on the tree at all- rather he was inside of it.

Much to my surprise there was a fresh cleanly bored hole into the trunk about one and a half inches across, and about three feet off of the ground. I was lucky to have stumbled upon this nesting cavity while it was under construction. Since the woodpecker was working on the interior, he was oblivious to my presence, so I laid down in some soft dry pine needles about fifteen feet away and waited patiently for him to emerge.

Oftentimes woodpeckers will orient nesting cavities to the southeast to catch the morning sun. This cavity was faced southwesterly, but had a clearing to the east so the tree would capture morning warmth, but then had other trees surrounding it which filtered the intense mid-day sun.

If a nest location is successful one year, the same tree may be used in subsequent years, but with a new cavity being excavated each season. Meanwhile, other birds such as house wrens or tree swallows utilize the old abandoned cavities for their nests.

As I lay there quietly I pondered whether this nesting cavity would ever be used, because woodpeckers may excavate several nesting cavities in a given spring. The final site selection will be made by the female sapsucker when she arrives, and only after she is appropriately courted by a male with an impressive territory.

After about ten minutes the pecking suddenly stopped and I watched the hole closely. I was curious to see what species of woodpecker would emerge. Slowly a black face striped with white lines surrounding his eyes peered cautiously from the hole. After a while he decided that I was just a random dull-witted human laying nearby for an afternoon nap. Meanwhile, I pretended to be paying no attention to him as I carefully watched him from the corner of my eye.

Several times his head disappeared. Then finally his head emerged and he blew out a big mouthful of wood shavings. When completed, the nesting cavity will be a gourd-shaped room large enough to lay and brood the eggs, and then rear the chicks.

Yesterday I dropped by the nesting cavity to see if there was any activity. Much to my delight, there was both a male and a female Williamson’s sapsucker visiting the hole and sticking in only their heads. As they flew away I listened closely to hear the soft peeping of young chicks coming from the nesting cavity. Both the male and the female returned frequently with freshly caught insects in their mouths to feed their hungry chicks.

When walking through aspen groves or thick forests this time of year, listen for the crying of hungry chicks to direct you to a nest. It is fun to observe the age-old cycle of the birds returning in the springtime, the attracting of mates, the choosing of a suitable nesting site, and then the rearing the chicks. The young sapsuckers will fledge in a few weeks and learn to forage with their parents. Then, by late August they’ll fly south toward Mexico, and will eventually return again next spring.

Tom and Tanya Wiesen are owners of Trailwise Guides; a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in hiking, mountain biking, and natural history tours. Daily private tours are available. Contact Trailwise Guides at (970) 827-5363.

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