Beak of the Week: Williamson’s Sapsucker

I realize I am abusing my Beak of the Week privileges by posting two in the same week, but I have so much catching up to do and this incredible sequence of moments just couldn’t wait!

I am currently in the Mammoth Lakes area, scouting out UCSB’s Valentine Camp Reserve, as part of my sabbatical project. Of course, I’ve managed to fit in much birding, hiking, and exploring. On Monday, I headed toward Mono Lake in search of a reported Grace’s Warbler – a pretty little warbler that I had the pleasure of seeing in southeast Arizona, but never in California. Finding this bird could not have been easier. I drove a few miles down a dirt road, pulled off in an area described in an eBird report, and heard the bird singing as soon as I opened my door. Ha! If only it were always that easy! He sang from high up in a Lodgepole Pine, but allowed me some great looks. I decided to hang around and explore the area, when a fast flying blur of black, white, yellow and red streamed between the pines.

A Williamson’s Sapsucker! One of my favorites! As he moved around an old pine tree, I heard the squeals of nestlings. I carefully scanned the many excavations in the tree, but didn’t see any activity. I backed up, found a log to sit on, and waited.

Moments later, the female arrived. Hmmmmm…..I think we’ve found the nest. Williamson’s Sapsuckers are striking birds with such impressive sexual dimorphism that males and females were once described as two separate species. Males are mostly black with bold, vertical, white wing patches. This feature and the two white facial stripes are most noticeable when the bird is clinging to a tree and foraging in the bark. If you’re are lucky to see one perched on a branch, or in flight, its bold and bright red throat and yellow belly will certainly catch your eye. Females lack these field marks entirely, and I would not blame you for mistaking one for a Flicker. Females have fine horizontal black-and-white barring on their back and an unmarked brown head.

My telephoto lens and I kept a comfortable distance, and I watched with amusement and joy as the mom and dad took turns visiting the nest.

And, finally, the nestling popped its head out! You can see dad, above, with a bill full of bugs and the nestling ready to eat. Are those ants? Sapsuckers eat far more ants than any other species of bird and their long, sticky tongue can lap up hundreds of ants from a nest. Mom returned and, once again, the nestling put itself in prime position to receive from food. These are two hard-working parents!

Williamson’s Sapsuckers are migratory species that nest in mountain forests throughout the West. Sapsuckers are unique among woodpeckers in drilling neat rows of small holes in tree trunks to cause a flow of sugary liquid. The sap that oozes from these holes is a source of food, but so are the small insects that get snagged in the sticky sap (many other birds have figured this out, most notably hummingbirds and warblers will reliably visit these sap wells for a snack!). They are such gorgeous and fascinating birds, and I will not soon forget this wonderful encounter!

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