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.

 

Hairy Woodpeckers

On a cold winter morning my husband Bruce and I were sitting in our kitchen and eating our usual Saturday breakfast of muffins and cheese omelets. I looked out our kitchen window and noticed two woodpeckers sparring on the trunk of the driveway black walnut tree. At first I thought they were our yard red-bellied woodpeckers, but after looking through my binoculars, I realized that one was a male red-bellied and the other a male hairy woodpecker.

A portrait of a male hairy woodpecker

A portrait of a male hairy woodpecker (Photo by Teddy Llovet on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Finally, the hairy retreated to the open ground around the black walnut tree where he poked in it for a couple minutes before flying off. I wondered if the red-bellied might have been defending his stash of seeds and nuts shoved in the crevices of the black walnut tree trunk and if instead the hairy had acknowledged defeat by searching for pieces of black walnuts on the ground.

During the fall and winter, hairy woodpeckers eat mast– acorns, hazelnuts, and beechnuts—but I imagine black walnuts are acceptable since hairies also consume a variety of seeds and nuts at bird feeders including cracked walnuts, pecans, and sunflower seeds. Still, I was surprised to see hairy woodpeckers in our yard since they prefer a forest of large trees, although they will live where there are mature shade trees in small woodlots, wooded parks, cemeteries or residential areas.

A female hairy woodpecker with a berry in its beak

A female hairy woodpecker with a berry in her beak (Photo by Dave Chase, 2012 Photo Contest, Seney NWR, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They also come readily to bird feeders in such residential areas, but they don’t come to our feeders on a central Pennsylvania mountain. Our feeder woodpeckers are red-bellied and downy woodpeckers. Those same species nest in holes in our yard black walnut and black locust trees. The hairies prefer our mature forest trees for foraging because the larvae of wood-boring insects make up 21 to 41 percent of their food throughout the year, along with ants, spiders, millipedes and beetles as well as wild berries and mast.

But during last winter’s warm February and early March, hairy woodpeckers visited our yard. First the male hairy revisited the plowed area, poking his bill repeatedly in the thawing ground. Then he flew into the driveway walnut tree and climbed to the top before flying away. He returned a couple days later with a female hairy and both, along with the yard red-bellied pair, busily poked in the open yard for food through a re-frozen earth.

In late February, I heard and then found a pair of hairy woodpeckers high in a tree on Greenbrier Trail engaged in courtship behavior, extending their necks, their bills pointing upward, bobbing their heads from side to side and flicking their wings as they circled the tree trunk. I doubted this was our yard-visiting pair because studies show that in a mature upland forest such as ours, a territory is on average 6.5 acres and Greenbrier Trail is a half mile from our home.

On the other hand, during the winter, hairy woodpeckers in Michigan have territories of 800 acres, which is larger than our square mile property. Furthermore, while some studies find that a pair of hairies have separate winter territories and renew their pair bonds in early spring, other studies find that pairs remain together throughout the winter.

A woodpecker meet-up—a hairy and a northern flicker having a dispute

A woodpecker meet-up—a hairy and a northern flicker having a dispute (Photo by Dan Streiffert on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In early March our yard-visiting pair joined a woodpecker meet-up near and on the driveway black walnut tree. Presumably, the hairies, along with a pair of downies and the red-bellied pair, were interested in the nesting cavity 30 feet high in the tree. Finally, the hairies retreated to the ground, poked their bills at the black walnut remnants and flew away.

That was the last they appeared in our yard, but I continued to see and hear the explosive “peek” calls of hairies in our forest the rest of the year. I knew from hairy nests I had watched that they favored high, dead, wild black cherry tree limbs here for nesting, and once the dead limb of a large black locust tree. I’ve also seen pairs in our mostly oak forest, and until the second half of the nestling period when the nestlings are incredibly noisy, the adult hairies are more wary than the smaller, look-alike downy woodpeckers.

Hairy woodpeckers are related to downy woodpeckers and in 2018 the American Ornithological Society changed their genus name Picoides along with six other western and southern North American woodpeckers back to Dryobates, a genus assigned to all these four-toed woodpeckers both here and in the Old World in 1826. In addition to being in the Picoides genus with three-toed woodpeckers, the four-toed woodpeckers had other anatomical as well as genetic difference with them, hence the genus change.

A downy woodpecker (left) on a feeder with a hairy woodpecker

A downy woodpecker (left) on a feeder with a hairy woodpecker (Photo by Paul Hurtado on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Another study pointed out that hairy and downy woodpeckers look so similar that they are difficult to distinguish in the field, yet they are not closely related. Downy woodpeckers belong to a group of four small Dryobates while hairy woodpeckers are in a group of four larger Dryobates. Neither woodpecker resembles others in their group as much as they resemble each other.

Some researchers believe that downy woodpeckers evolved mimetic plumage to avoid attacks from hairy woodpeckers, the so-called “Hairy Woodpecker Trickery” hypothesis. But a recent study of hairy and downy woodpecker interactions at the feeders of Project FeederWatch observers by three Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology scientists seems to disprove that theory. They found that downy woodpeckers were often the target of hairy woodpeckers and chased the downies from feeders. However the downies were unusually dominant when competing with birds larger than them such as northern cardinals. The scientists hypothesize that downies may use their resemblance to hairies to fool other species into believing they are hairies, the so-called “Innocent Bystander Trickery” hypothesis.

Both woodpeckers have white breasts and backs, black-and-white striped heads, black wings spotted with white, and clear white outer tail feathers, but the hairy woodpecker is about nine inches to the downy’s six, has a much heavier and longer bill and usually lacks the black markings on the outer tail feathers of a downy. The males of both species have a red patch on the back of their heads and the females do not.

A male hairy woodpecker at his nest hole

A male hairy woodpecker at his nest hole (Photo by Rich Hoeg on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Here on our mountain hairy woodpeckers begin to excavate nest holes in mid-April. The male does most of the work because his bill is 10 percent longer than the female’s. They mate during nest-building and egg-laying. Their nest cavity is dug in a dead or dying tree limb five to 40 feet from the ground, and it is 10 to 15 inches deep, with an entrance hole 1 ¾ to 2 inches in diameter. Its base contains a soft bed of wood chips on which the female lays six to eight white eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, the male alternating with the female during the day and incubating on his own throughout the night.

After 11 to 12 days, their altricial young hatch and remain in the nest for 28 to 30 days. But the adults switch from entering the nest cavity while feeding the nestlings to feeding from the outside when the nestlings are about 16 days old. Then the nestlings climb up to the nest entrance and the parents land on the limb and poke their bills, crammed with insects, into the bills of loudly chirping youngsters. That’s when I located three nests. However, their chirping may attract predators such as black rat snakes, predators on eggs and young, as well as eastern screech-owls, European starlings, house sparrows or red-bellied woodpeckers—all predators on hairy woodpecker nestlings. The nest hole is too small to admit raccoons and gray squirrels, and adult hairies keep them away with their formidable bills.

An adult male hairy woodpecker outside a nest hole with a juvenile male inside

An adult male hairy woodpecker outside a nest hole with a juvenile male inside (Photo by Mick Thompson/Eastside Audubon on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The parents were also noisy when I watched their nests, emitting loud, rapid-fire “queek, queek, queek” calls for 10 minutes or more whenever I entered their territory and announcing their impending arrival at the nest with far-off calls, which caused their nestlings to chirp even louder. The parents even engaged in “demonstrative drumming” on nearby trees to protest my presence.

When the nestlings are old enough to fledge, the parents use a couple methods to entice them from the nest. One is to hold food out of reach, forcing them to lean out a little too far, and the other is to starve them, making them so hungry that they tumble out. Then the parents continue to care for them as long as six more weeks which is why they have only one brood a year.

A hairy woodpecker at a feeder in Danville, PA

A hairy woodpecker at a feeder in Danville, PA (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Hairy woodpeckers are common and widespread throughout their continent-wide range, and in Pennsylvania their numbers increased from the first to the second breeding bird atlasing periods. The highest densities are in the forested areas of central and northern Pennsylvania and the lowest in the Piedmont and other areas with sparse forest cover.

With an estimated 97,000 hairy woodpeckers in Pennsylvania, we should have ample chances to observe these fascinating birds in our forests, wooded yards, and at our bird feeders throughout the year.

 

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 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.