A Loony Day

“This is probably as close to a red-throated loon as you’ll ever get,” my son Mark said to me.

An adult red-throated loon

An adult red-throated loon (Photo by Mick Thompson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We were standing a mere 15 feet from a red-throated loon that was floating on the acre-and-a-half reflecting pool at the Penn State Altoona campus. The loon had been hanging out there since March 30, having arrived during a huge fallout of waterfowl throughout our area in west central Pennsylvania.

I watched as students streamed past the pool, most of them unaware of the star waterfowl surrounded by the usual gang of mallards. But the loon was more like the shunned “other,” a solitary royal on its own amid the commoners that dared not approach it.

The loon had a long way to go before it could begin breeding in low tundra wetlands, bogs or forest ponds from Alaska east to Labrador and Newfoundlnd. Here in the East, red-throated loons spend the winter mostly along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Georgia, but at least a few winter in lakes as far west as Bay Spring Lakes in Tishomingo, Mississippi, according to a February 25, 2018 eBird report that listed one wintering red-throated loon as well as 92 common loons.

A red-throated loon without the red throat patch

A red-throated loon without the red throat patch (Photo by K. Schneider on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Red-throated loons, Gavia stellata, are the smallest and most slender of the five loon species in North America. Breeding adults have pearl-gray heads and necks, which the Penn State Altoona loon had but not yet the rust-red patch on its throat that distinguishes it from other loons—common, yellow-billed, Pacific and Arctic—all of which are variously patterned in black and white. In addition, red-throated loons have long, thin bills that tilt upwards.

Red-throated loons also differ in behavior from their congeners. They can take off directly from land instead of requiring a quarter-mile-long patter on top of a larger body of water such as common loons need. Furthermore, red-throated loons don’t carry their young on their backs, again like other loon species, and they forage for food on lakes and even the sea a distance from their breeding territory unlike their congeners that feed on their breeding lakes.

Here in Pennsylvania red-throated loons are uncommon to rare migrants and previously were seen mostly on the lower Delaware River and Lake Erie. For instance, back in 1997 a momentous 200 red-throated loons migrated over Lake Erie, but the usual yearly count is eight. However, all the impoundments in the High Plateau, Ridge and Valley and in the Piedmont away from the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, according to Gerald McWilliams and Dan Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania, may also encourage more red-throated loons to migrate through Pennsylvania.

Still, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan calls it a Species of High Concern because of its population decline in North America and northern Europe perhaps due to oil spills, habitat degradation, or entanglement in fish nets, although scientists are not certain about this and need to do more study of these birds.

Once we had admired the red-throated loon, Mark and I headed to Lake Altoona, which he had previously visited with two environmental ethics students at the beginning of the waterfowl fallout. The weather late in March had been unusually cold and windy with frequent snow and rain, and on March 30 they had identified 26 species, most notably 100 redheads, 40 greater scaup, 40 lesser scaup, 100 horned grebes, 25 long-tailed ducks, 100 red-breasted mergansers, and 30 common loons.

A common loon at Codorus State Park, Hanover, Pennsylvania

A common loon at Codorus State Park, Hanover, Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During our visit on April 6, three students joined us and we found 24 species in all. That afternoon it gradually warmed to a blustery 50 degrees, and it was partly sunny. The waterfowl numbers had declined from March 30 to six redheads, six greater scaup, three horned grebes, 16 red-breasted mergansers, no long-tailed ducks, and only three common loons, but the loons were below the dam breast of the impoundment, a source of Altoona’s drinking water, and were close and easy to see directly beneath us.

Unlike red-throated loons, at least one pair of common loons nested in Pennsylvania as late as 1946 on Pocono Lake in Monroe County. But since then the nearest breeding common loons are in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. They also breed across Canada, New England, and the upper Midwest.

Best known for their weird, maniacal calls and wavering cries, common loons in their breeding plumage of black heads and necks, the latter with necklaces of black-and-white horizontal stripes, and checkered black-and-white backs look as elegant as men in tuxedos. But in the fall and winter their stout, black bills are light gray, and their bodies are gray-brown above and white below.

Along central Pennsylvania ridges they are common migrants, and I have heard them call occasionally when flying over our ridgetop in the spring. In fact, the same day we were looking for waterfowl, hawk watchers atop nearby Tussey Mountain counted 16 common loons flying north. However, common loons almost lost their commonness during the last century. Because they need clear, clean lakes to dive for fish, build their nests, and raise their young, they cannot tolerate pollution, development, and disturbances.

A common loon on a nest at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan

A common loon on a nest at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In the mid-twentieth century, breeding loons began disappearing across North America from California and Oregon, the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and from eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut. Then, shortly after the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s, they staged a comeback, returning to Massachusetts with 45 breeding pairs on 20 lakes throughout the state by 2015. Across the Great Lakes and the northeast they returned to nest in lakes they had deserted decades before.

Best of all, from our standpoint, was the recovery in the Adirondacks. Down to 200 pairs, there are today between 600 and 850 nesting pairs from the Adirondacks to the Finger Lakes. Altogether, the total North American population is about 250,000 nesting pairs.

An adult loon, right, feeding fish to a juvenile

An adult loon, right, feeding fish to a juvenile (Photo by Anita Ritenour on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While these numbers are encouraging, biologists say that loon numbers are still well below historical numbers. Common loons can dive 75 feet deep and swiftly chase after their fish prey underwater. But they also pick up what appear to be pebbles on the lake bottoms in their gizzards which they need to grind up the fish they eat. Often, the “pebbles” are lead sinkers and jigs from fishing tackle, and when they reach their gizzards, they poison the loons. In only a few days, the loons can’t eat, they are paralyzed, and they die from exposure, suffocation, and starvation.

A study of this problem in New Hampshire from 1989 to 2012 by biologists, with the help of citizen scientists, resulted in a paper that found that 49 per cent of 253 dead loons had died from lead poisoning. In New York a similar study found that lead had been responsible for between 15 to 21 percent of loon deaths.

As Harry Vogel, wildlife biologist and director of the Loon Preservation Committee told writer Lauren Chambliss in an article in the Summer 2018 Living Bird, “It’s a terrible death for these birds. And it is so easily avoidable.”

We continued watching other waterfowl at Lake Altoona including two blue-winged teal, two gadwall, three American wigeons, a tundra swan, 10 northern shovelers, 50 ring-necked ducks, 10 buffleheads, two common mergansers and four pied-billed grebes. Eight Bonaparte’s gulls flew overhead.

My granddaughter Elanor Bonta in waterfowl mode at Canoe Creek State Park

My granddaughter Elanor Bonta in waterfowl mode at Canoe Creek State Park (Photo by Dave Bonta, March 13, 2008, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

After an exciting hour there, Mark and I drove to Canoe Creek State Park because, as Mark said, “Once you’re in waterfowl mode, you must keep going.”

Canoe Lake is 155 acres, much larger than Lake Altoona, and provides excellent resting and feeding stopover for waterfowl. By the time we arrived, in late afternoon, it had clouded over and the wind blew at gale force, whipping up waves that made it difficult to spot waterfowl.

But we set up our scope and scanned the lake. We located a flock of seven common loons, two gadwalls, three mallards, five buffleheads, 14 red-breasted mergansers, two ruddy ducks, two pied-billed grebes, and 10 American coots. Fifteen double-crested cormorants landed on the water with wings spread like huge bats and two killdeer ran along the sandy beach.

Without Mark’s help, I doubt I would have seen as many waterfowl, but, in addition to the loons, my favorite sightings were the white-cheeked, dark-capped, rusty-red male ruddy ducks, the puffy-headed, black-and-white buffleheads, the crested red-breasted mergansers, and, best of all, the stunning golden crowned horned grebes. The grebes, too, were heading far north to breed on lakes and ponds from the Brooks Range in Alaska east to the western shore of Hudson Bay.

In fact, almost all the waterfowl we saw that day were only passing through the state for places to breed far to the north or west of us. That is why I make it a practice every spring to visit nearby lakes to admire these birds in their gaudy, breeding attire.

 

Winter Visitor

Near the end of January I swept our back porch clean of an inch of snow before spreading bird seed. Immediately a sparrow throng of dark-eyed juncos, white-throated, song, and American tree sparrows mobbed the porch.

A group of chipping sparrows on a feeder

A group of chipping sparrows on a feeder (Photo by Anne Davis 773 on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But one sparrow looked different from the rest and fed off by itself. Still, with its rusty-red cap it most resembled the four American tree sparrows, but it lacked a tree sparrow’s dot on its breast, gray eyebrow line and gray throat and neck. Instead, the mystery bird had a whitish eyebrow line and white throat and I thought it was a male chipping sparrow.

American tree sparrows are nicknamed “winter chippies,” because of their resemblance to chipping sparrows, but the tree sparrows at our feeding area continually chased off the chipping sparrow, since that is what it seemed to be. They seemed to have no problem figuring out that their almost look-alike was not part of their tribe.

The chipping sparrow on our back porch

The chipping sparrow on our back porch (Photo by Bruce Bonta, January 30, 2018)

I, on the other hand, wanted to make certain of my identification and insisted that my husband Bruce take a photograph of the chipping sparrow to send to our birding son Mark. He, in turn, posted it to the Pennsylvania eBird list, and everyone agreed that it was a male chipping sparrow.

I was pleased that he appeared on a Project FeederWatch day because I had never recorded a wintering chipping sparrow on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop, although they are regular breeders here in spring and summer. According to The Birds of Pennsylvania by Gerald M. McWilliams and Daniel W. Brauning, chipping sparrows are irregular winter visitors or residents where there is suitable cover near bird-feeding stations, but they are “usually found only during mild winters with little snow cover.” In addition, it is rare to find any chipping sparrows here beyond the third or fourth week in January.

But it had been bitterly cold and windy throughout January and the temperature as low as two degrees Fahrenheit below zero. We also had had frequent snow cover. Nonetheless, the chipping sparrow had evidently found shelter in the tall remnants of dried grasses and wildflowers below our porch steps at least for that day. Whether he found enough shelter and sustenance in our 37-acre meadow throughout the mild February or in the farm valley below, I didn’t see another chipping sparrow here until their usual spring appearance in early May.

The chipping sparrow—Spizella passerina—which is Latin for “sparrow-like finch,” was more aptly named by the “Father of American Ornithology” Alexander Wilson in 1810—Fringilla socialis—meaning “social sparrow” because even then chipping sparrows lived near human habitation. Then it was most likely rural homes, farmyards, pastures or orchards. Today chipping sparrows are also found in the suburban residential landscape of parks, gardens, golf courses, open woodlands, and woodland edges along roads and utility lines.

The fourth most widespread breeding bird species in Pennsylvania, the chipping sparrow is only behind the song sparrow, American crow, and American robin in abundance. Even during the days of John James Audubon back in 1841 he wrote about the chipping sparrow that “few birds are more common throughout the United States than this gentle and harmless little bunting.”

A chipping sparrow in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA

A chipping sparrow in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Breeding across Canada to Alaska and throughout most of the United States, chipping sparrow migrants return to Pennsylvania from Central America, Mexico and the Gulf coast of the United States as early as the second week in March although the peak migration here is the last week in April or first week in May. I usually hear the male’s dry, monotone trill before I see him because he maintains his acre of territory mainly through song, but he also uses threat displays, chases, and even fights.

Once he establishes his territory, he courts a female by singing and short chases and they pair up a day or two after she arrives, usually about two weeks after the male does. She solicits copulation by crouching, her head and tail raised and vibrating. They mate several times in succession either on the ground or in elevated places such as fences, tree branches, and telephone lines.

Here on our farm the electric wires are favorite places, and we tend to think of chipping sparrows as exhibitionists. Both sexes engage in what ornithologists call “extra-pair copulations,” and once females are on their nests, scientists have found that some color-banded males copulate with other females on neighboring territories.

A chipping sparrow with nest material

A chipping sparrow with nest material (Photo by Gary Leavens on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During nest-building and egg-laying by a female, though, the male keeps close as if he is guarding her. She seems to choose the final nesting site in a wide variety of trees and shrubs, but conifers are preferred over deciduous trees. However, crabapple trees are favored next, followed by honeysuckle, various maples, ornamental trees and shrubs, hawthorn, currant and even vines such as English ivy. Wherever she builds her nest, usually it is hidden in foliage three to 30 feet from the ground.

Like most bird species, though, some chipping sparrows don’t follow the nest-building program. For instance, back in 1911, R.F. Miller reported that a chipping sparrow, three years in a row, nested in pepper plants hung up to dry in late summer in a shed on a Philadelphia County farm. Another nest, in Huntingdon County in 1923, was built in the bottom of a hairy woodpecker roosting cavity 10 feet from the ground. And Maurice Broun, the first caretaker at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, wrote about a chipping sparrow nest 30 feet up in a maple tree overgrown with grapevines and another 50 feet on top of an oak tree.

The cup nest itself is built in four days by the female and is so flimsy you can often see through the rootlets and dried grasses she weaves and then lines with the hair of deer, raccoons, cattle, and humans, and has even been known to yank out hair from horses, her preferred nest-lining material.

She then lays two to seven pale blue to white, lightly streaked or spotted eggs and incubates them for 10 to 15 days. The male feeds her frequently while she is on the nest because she rarely leaves it especially near the end of the incubation period.

The nestlings emerge over a 24-hour period, and the parents immediately eat the eggshells. The male begins feeding their young within an hour of hatching while the female continues to brood her naked nestlings until they develop feathers. She gradually decreases brooding after their fourth day and joins the male in feeding them mostly weed seeds, followed by insects as the nestlings mature.

Eggs and nestlings are preyed upon by black rat, eastern milk, and eastern garter snakes, American crows, blue jays, and domestic cats while adults and flying youngsters are victims of Cooper’s hawks, American kestrels, red squirrels, and domestic cats.

Their nests are sometimes parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, but often chipping sparrows alarm-call and use threatening displays to deter them and frequently desert nests with cowbird eggs in them. If a cowbird does hatch with chipping sparrow nestlings, both appear to survive.

A parent chipping sparrow feeding an immature bird

A parent chipping sparrow feeding an immature bird (Photo by Indiana Ivy Nature Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

After a nestling period of nine to 12 days, the young climb to the rim of the nest and then into tree branches and practice short flights. Their parents continue to care for them for three weeks or so, but the male does most of the care if the female is starting a second brood. Then the young gather in flocks of five to 15 birds to forage in weedy places.

Once their last brood is on their own, the adults leave their territory, and parents and offspring join foraging flocks of their own species as well as song and field sparrows, feeding in weedy fields, along fence rows and forest edges. Fall flocks range from 25 to as many as 1000 birds as they move in stages south for the winter along the coast and mountaintops, leaving Pennsylvania as early as mid-September and as late as the third week or later in October depending on the weather.

Because chipping sparrows occupy a wide variety of habitats during breeding and on their wintering grounds, they remain incredibly common birds with an estimated three million breeding males in Pennsylvania alone. So it looks as if we can look forward every spring to the return of these human-adapted birds.

 

The Art and Science of Feeding Birds

I first began feeding winter birds in November 1968 when we lived in rural central Maine for five years. At the beginning of November, I hung a feeder filled with sunflower and mixed seeds from the yard American elm tree, but it wasn’t until a wet, snowy November 10 that the first birds appeared. I glanced out a window of our cape-style farmhouse to see 11 evening grosbeaks in the feeder and on the ground beneath. After that, the grosbeaks appeared during snowstorms throughout late fall, winter and early spring.

Evening grosbeaks on a bird feeder

Evening grosbeaks on a bird feeder (Photo by Linda on the bridge to NewWhere on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The following winter the grosbeak flock numbered as many as 100 on snowy days. They were joined by common redpolls, American tree sparrows, blue jays, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, hairy and downy woodpeckers, and a few slate-colored juncos. Even then, I was listing numbers and species and watching and recording their antics in and around the feeders.

When we moved to Pennsylvania in late summer of 1971, I hung our feeder from the top of our back porch, five feet from the kitchen door, and spread seed on the back steps and cement pad beneath. Back in Maine our active bird feeder had provided entertainment for the whole family especially our three young sons. And I was eager to see what species would visit our new home.

Evening grosbeaks made occasional visits, but there were only a few of them at any time, and before the end of the century there were none. Then, as now, white-breasted nuthatches are the first birds to spot me putting up the feeder every November. Common redpolls are uncommon visitors once or twice every other year. Blue jays, too, are intermittent visitors, having cached acorns for the winter, unlike in Maine where oak trees were scarce and we hosted 14 blue jays at a time. American tree sparrows are almost as numerous here as they were in Maine even though Maine is closer to their boreal breeding grounds. Slate-colored juncos, lumped together with several other junco species in 1983 and re-named dark-eyed juncos, are more numerous in Pennsylvania.

Hand feeding a black-capped chickadee

Hand feeding a black-capped chickadee (Photo by Yvon Hache on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Hairy and downy woodpeckers rarely visit our feeders here because they have a large forest of deciduous trees they forage on. But in Maine we lived in the country surrounded by fallow fields that attracted bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks in the spring. Beyond the fields was a patch of mature white pines along a lake that hosted dozens of small vacation cabins, so there were less trees to furnish insects for woodpeckers.

We had black-capped chickadees in both places, and I learned to handfeed them here where it isn’t too cold to stand outside next to an empty feeder, my palm outstretched and filled with sunflower seeds. Usually, they landed on my hand within 20 minutes. It took the tufted titmice, watching the chickadees, a little longer to venture near.

Tufted titmice and northern cardinals weren’t residents in central Maine in the 1960s as they are now, so I was pleasantly surprised when they appeared at our Pennsylvania feeder. And not so pleasantly surprised when gray squirrels raided it. In Maine, gray squirrels rarely appeared and the more common red squirrels stayed in the pine forest. After struggling to keep the squirrels from our open, wooden feeder in Pennsylvania, I replaced it with a couple tube feeders, which they have not had much success invading.

A red-bellied woodpecker at a feeder in Pennsylvania

A red-bellied woodpecker at a feeder in Pennsylvania (Photo by Rona Proudfoot on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In Pennsylvania the first red-bellied woodpeckers, previously a southern species, arrived in our yard in 1980, and after a few years became the most common of our feeder woodpecker species. In 1986 Carolina wrens, another southern species, visited the feeder area, although several times their numbers were reduced after severe winters. Lately, though, our warmer winters have kept them alive and thriving.

Once Project FeederWatch was launched in 1987 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I started paying even more attention to feeder birds, devoting portions of two consecutive days each week to counting numbers and species.

Writing in Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Lab, Gustave Axelson summed up some of the results of Project FeederWatch studies. Common red polls used to irrupt south from their boreal breeding grounds every other year when aspen and birch seed crops were lower, but beginning in 2005, some FeederWatch counts in low redpoll years have been higher than expected and may mean that food in the boreal forest is scarcer.

A cooper’s hawk with its catch near a bird feeder

A cooper’s hawk with its catch near a bird feeder (Photo by Tony Alter on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Cooper’s hawks are not migrating to Mexico as much as they used to. Many hang out near feeders, as many bird feeder watchers can attest to, probably because they have learned that feeders attract large numbers of prey such as dark-eyed juncos and American goldfinches, but their predation has not affected the overall numbers of these common species.

Northern cardinals have expanded their range and are now reliable feeder birds as far north as Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia not only because of bird feeders but because more people are landscaping their yards with shrubbery that provides cardinals with more food and cover.

Biologist Bernd Heinrich, writing in Natural History, recounted his studies on how birds managed to recognize and then use a food as foreign to them as cultivated sunflower seeds. First he watched as white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees often picked up seeds and then threw them aside. Heinrich opened those seeds and found them empty of a nut. He hypothesized that the birds were testing the weight of every seed, knowing that if it was too light, it was useless as food.

A black-capped chickadee opening a seed

A black-capped chickadee opening a seed (Photo by Christa R. on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Heinrich also began to observe how each species ate oil sunflower seeds because their bills weren’t designed to handle this unnatural food. It took a chickadee 35 seconds to grab a seed, fly always to the same nearby maple tree, perch on a slender branch on which it could curl its toes around and over the seed, hammer it open with its bill, extract and eat the seed and fly back to the feeder for its next seed, actions that I and other bird feeder watchers have observed. But Heinrich thought to time it and to further add that, “broadly speaking, the branch constitutes tool-use.”

Blue jays do the same as chickadees, although they need a larger branch for their larger feet. They too use the same branch over and over, but unlike chickadees that don’t cache their seeds, a blue jay will sometimes fill its buccal pouch with seeds and fly off to cache them.

Nuthatches and woodpeckers take the seeds, one at a time, fly with it to a favorite cleft in tree bark, shove it in the cleft, break it open with their beak, and eat the nut.

Wild turkeys at a feeder in Pennsylvania

Wild turkeys at a feeder in Pennsylvania (Photo by Aaron of NEPA on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Heinrich also wondered about predation risk and hypothesized that, “if feeding efficiency is measured in terms of the least time needed to forage for the most food secured,” then mourning doves and wild turkeys are best at this. Heinrich’s doves come at first light and dusk for three minutes at a time and eat 90 seeds a minutes. They spend the rest of the day sheltered in a spruce/fir thicket digesting the seeds. Wild turkeys eat 135 seeds a minute. Both species have crops where they store their seeds. While resting, they move the seeds to their gizzards where they are ground up.

A Cornell Lab study tackled the question of how black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and house finches weighed the possibility of starving on a cold winter’s night to risking predation while eating birdseed to sustain themselves. They set up feeders near the Lab’s headquarters that contained radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Then they captured and fitted the birds with little RFID tags which enabled those feeders to record every bird’s visit. In two winters they recorded 472,368 feeder visits by 94 tagged birds.

All four species began eating at the feeders a half hour before sunrise and visited more and more frequently as the day passed Their numbers peaked two hours before sunset and then declined sharply for all but the white-breasted nuthatches. They hypothesized that the birds are less concerned about day-flying predators—Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks—than they are nocturnal predators, primarily eastern screech-owls.

A tufted titmouse at one of our feeders

A tufted titmouse at one of our feeders (Photo by Eva Bonta and used with her permission)

Still another Lab study was on whether bird-feeding hurts or helps birds since more than 50 million North Americans feed one million tons of seed to birds every year. They studied 98 species of birds that use feeders the most and found that they do as well or better than those birds that don’t use feeders. Feeder species showing declines, such as evening grosbeaks, seemed to because of other pressures like habitat loss.

Conversely, those that needed the most help, such as seabirds, shorebirds, and tropical birds, are not feeder birds so we aren’t helping the neediest birds.

Still, no matter where we hang our feeders, we can feel a connection to the natural world that may inspire us to advocate for those many species that need our help.

 

The Life of a Sapsucker

Last November26, I walked into our sunroom. Almost immediately I spotted a male yellow-bellied sapsucker eating the fruit of one of two hackberry trees we had planted more than a decade ago. Also called “sugarberry,” it is known to be a favorite winter food for a variety of songbirds, most notably American robins and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

A portrait of a male yellow-bellied sapsucker

A portrait of a male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo by Claudine Lamothe on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I had a bird’s eye view of this unusual woodpecker from our sunroom, which is perched on a hillock surrounded by black walnuts, black locusts, scarlet oaks, and a white pine. As I watched the sapsucker, he plucked and ate several hackberries and then flew down into the dead middle tree of the three large front yard black locusts and tapped away.

Next he flew to a black walnut tree branch outside the sunroom and probed in a crevice. Every time he withdrew his bill he had food in it that he swallowed so he was probably searching for and eating insects. Finally, he hitched his way past the crevice and began drilling small sap holes, but after a couple minutes he flew away.

As close as I had been to the sapsucker, I could not be certain what he was doing once he left the hackberry tree, but I could verify his attraction to hackberries. Since the weather had been mild, he was lingering later than the usual sapsucker migration period in Pennsylvania of late September through October. Or perhaps he planned to stay for the winter on our 1500-foot mountaintop as an occasional sapsucker has in the 47 years we’ve lived here.

A wintering yellow-bellied sapsucker alongside the Schuylkill River Trail, Chester County, PA

A wintering yellow-bellied sapsucker alongside the Schuylkill River Trail, Chester County, PA (Photo taken by Brian Henderson on Feb. 21, 2016, and posted on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Male yellow-bellied sapsuckers don’t migrate as far south as the females, although most yellow-bellied sapsuckers migrate from their northern nesting grounds of southeast Alaska, the southern half of Canada, and our northern states where they breed as far south in the east as Pennsylvania’s northern tier. A few winter mostly in the southern part of the commonwealth, but the yellow-bellied sapsucker—the only woodpecker species in eastern North America that is completely migratory—usually spends its winter farther south in the United States, West Indies, Mexico or Central America.

As their name suggests, both the male and female yellow-bellied sapsuckers have dull, yellow bellies and breasts in addition to red crowns and black faces, wings, and backs accented by white patterning—two horizontal stripes on their faces, a broad patch on each wing, and stippling on their backs. But only the males have flaming red throats.

Because they sapsuck, they are nicknamed “sap-sippers” and “sup-saps,” and lap up leaking sap and any trapped insects with their specialized, brush-tipped tongues. Although they have drilled their sap wells in more than 1000 tree and woody plant species, they prefer sick or wounded paper and yellow birches, red and sugar maples and hickories, all of which have high sugar concentrations in their sap.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker on a tree with rows of holes

A yellow-bellied sapsucker on a tree with rows of holes (Photo by Vitalii Khustochka on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In early spring they drill holes in xylem, the inner part of the trees, to obtain sap moving up the branches, but after trees leaf out, they drill shallow, rectangular wells in phloem, the part of the tree that carries sap down from the leaves. That sap may be 10% sugar and feeds not only sapsuckers but ruby-throated hummingbirds, which time their migration to that of sapsuckers to make use of this abundant resource. Tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, black-capped chickadees, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, and black-throated blue warblers have also sampled the flowing sap as well as bald-faced hornets, paper wasps, chipmunks, red squirrels, bats, porcupines, and martens.

While sap comprises about 20% of their yearly diet, they also eat a wide variety of insects, not only those trapped in the sap, but those they pry from under bark scales and catch in the air. Bast, the inner bark and cambium layers of trees, fruit, including berries of dogwood, black alder, Virginia creeper and wild black cherries, buds (in spring) and seeds complete their varied yearly diet.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers begin returning to Pennsylvania by the third or fourth week in March. Here on our ridge-and-valley mountain, I first know they are back when I hear their peculiar mewing alarm calls sometime in early April. Then I find them quietly tapping and tippling in our woods. Usually they are males because they migrate a week ahead of the females. And here they seem to favor hickory trees which are already scarred with rows of old sapsucker holes. Hickory trees, it turns out, have a sap flow with a sugar concentration of between 6.4% and 11.1%.

A yellow-bellied sapsucker that returned to Pennsylvania

A yellow-bellied sapsucker that returned to Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Codorus State Park, April 16, 2013 on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One April day I watched two males flying at each other around a medium-sized hickory tree, fighting over possession of a favorite tippling tree. I settled down to watch as one quickly routed the other and started to “sap-sip.” He braced his tail against the tree at a 45 degree angle, gripped the bark with his feet, and dipped his beak into each hole two or three times. Each time he withdrew his bill it glistened with sap. Twice he had to stop and defend the tree from the other sapsucker before both birds flew off.

On another April day I watched a male sapsucker sipping sap from a huge old sugar maple tree above the Far Field Road. That tree had old and new sapsucker holes, and he drilled new ones as I watched, The flowing sap also fed flies but instead of eating them, he made a quick dive to the ground, plucked up an insect, and flew back to his original perch.

He occasionally glanced at me as I sat on the ground six feet away, but he continued his drilling and sipping. The latter he did by turning his head sideways and dipping his beak into each hole two or three times, being careful not to touch the sticky bark with any other part of his body except his feet and the tip of his tail.

Insects in the beak of a male yellow-bellied sapsucker

Insects in the beak of a male yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo by ramendan on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

He also defecated a fine stream every three minutes by quickly lifting his tail away from the bark and squirting a good foot or so from the tree. In his Woodpeckers of Eastern North America, Lawrence Kilham wrote of watching a sapsucker drilling in a black walnut tree during a January thaw in Washington, D.C. He noted that in a 25 minute period, one sapsucker voided 11 times or once every two minutes.

I didn’t hear the distinctive irregular drumming of a sapsucker. Mostly they drum on their breeding grounds to defend their territory and especially their sapsucking sites. Here in Pennsylvania they breed in the forests of our northern tier with 44% of our state’s estimated 96,000 birds in Warren, McKean, Potter and Tioga counties alone.

According to biologist Bernd Heinrich in his One Wild Bird at a Time, “the male drumming attracts the female, and that when she arrives he leads her to his previously found nest site [in a tree with hardwood decay fungus]. If she approves, she lets him know by offering token help, and then he begins excavating in earnest.”

A male yellow-bellied sapsucker checking out a potential nest hole

A male yellow-bellied sapsucker checking out a potential nest hole (Photo by Keith Williams on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Sapsuckers are monogamous during their breeding time and often from year to year because they frequently return to the same breeding site, tree, and even cavity as the previous year. While he takes two to three weeks to drill a new nest cavity, she spends her time preening and resting. The entrance hole is a tight 1.5 inches and the nest cavity as deep as 10 inches.

She lays five to seven white eggs on a bed of wood chips left over from cavity construction and both parents incubate them with the male taking on some of the day hours in addition to the night shift. After 10 to 13 days, the naked hatchings emerge. The parents take turns brooding their young and feeding them insects often coated in sap.

Most nests are 9.8 to 45.9 feet from the ground and the nestlings are noisy which may attract predators. Kilham reported weasel predation in nests he observed in New Hampshire. Other predators include raccoons, snakes, red squirrels, hawks and black bears.

An immature yellow-bellied sapsucker

An immature yellow-bellied sapsucker (Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At 25 to 30 days old, the young fledge but continue with their parents who feed them for a week and teach them sapsucking. The fledglings quickly learn to capture insects in the sap wells, but even after they feed themselves, they keep in vocal contact with their parents and use their sap wells. About six weeks out of the nest, they can drill their own sap wells but appear to stay in family groups at least until migration.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been increasing throughout their range according to the 2011 Breeding Bird Survey. In Pennsylvania between the first and second breeding bird atlasing, breeding increased 99 percent Scott H. Stoleson reported in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Although sapsuckers did not increase in the Allegheny Mountains where they once bred, they filled in and expanded in the northern, eastern, and western sections of Pennsylvania. Thus we can rejoice that such a unique woodpecker thrives in the commonwealth.