Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sweet and Sour Dinner: More about Sapsuckers

Lake in the Woods, Douglas County, Oregon: July 5, 2010

Follow-up to “The Undiciplined Walker,” posted on July 9. It happens these two posts tie together nicely so I’m posting them in sequence, even though they took place nearly three weeks apart. Since I often want to include art work with my posts, I tend to be slow in getting my posts ready.

Cool, cloudy morning, but the weather report promises a sunny afternoon. We pick up our friend, Eleanor, and head to Lake in the Woods to check out dragonflies. Fifty feet from the car I stop dead in my tracks. I spooked a red-breasted sapsucker out of a willow where he had been checking his sap holes. But his sap holes are squarish and run in vertical rows, just like the Williamson’s sapsucker’s I drew in Yellowstone! I thought I had sapsucker holes figured out.

Williamson’s sapsucker and his fresh drillings in a Douglas fir, Yellowstone National Park.

I soon realize I have stumbled across a treasure. Not only have I found another sapsucker seep just three weeks after the last one, but this one is a hive of activity. Two red-breasted sapsuckers are in an out of the large thick willow along with rufous hummingbirds. The sapsuckers are taking great offense to the hummingbird’s presence. The hummers are stealing their sap.

I plainly need to dive into the books. I have a paid membership to Cornell University’s, “Birds of North America Online,” a wonderful resource for birds. Right now photography is in order. Dragonflies are forgotten. I let Dale and Eleanor know what I’ve found. Dale and I spend most of the next four hours glued to the willow bush.

Lake in the Woods: July 6, 2010

I’m back on the same rock I sat on yesterday. It must have some of yesterday’s sweat on it. Sweat trickled down my face; salt got in my eyes; my toes roasted inside my shoes; my pants felt like they just came off the ironing board. Am I crazy or what? No, just fascinated with the sapsucker seep. My boulder will probably get even harder today and I already feel a trickle of sweat running down my back.

I feel fractured. I want to just watch, to draw, to photograph, to write. Yesterday photography won. Today I’m slipping half sentences into my journal between shooting. I’ll draw later from the computer. At least when I write, I tend to watch more carefully. I much prefer to write my notes on location. They can always be edited later.

We arrived about 11 AM today, a little earlier than yesterday. It started out quieter, but now, at noon, it is getting hectic in that willow again. It’s a thick willow that would pretty much fill up my living room. I can walk half way around it before I sink into muck. There are at least half a dozen stems with fresh sapsucker holes. Only the stem on the west side of the bush gives us a chance to photograph. The others are buried in shadows and interfering leaves. There are other willows near us, but only this one is being drilled.

The sapsuckers never stay for long. If two are in the bush, they talk softly to each other. One often comes in and works on the top holes; that is called ‘maintance.’ He is keeping the sap flowing. Now that we’ve watched for several hours, it becomes clear that this bush has provided sap for many days. The bottom of the vertical row of holes is dried out. Only one horizontal row of holes has been added to this stem during the past 24 hours. One sapsucker often comes with an empty bill and works on the hole for less than a minute, then off to another stem. The other sapsucker, the more bedraggled one (sticky with sap?), often arrives with a mouthful of prey, sometimes ants, once a cricket, often unidentifiable. The sapsucker rubs its mouthful of prey in the ooze. Then off it goes. Ants have a distinctive formic acid flavor. Dare I to think the sweetness of the sap and the formic acid makes a sweet and sour dinner for sapsucker nestlings? I suspect the adults are after nutrition and calories, not flavor.

The sapsuckers are never in the bush for very long. They often come zooming back to chase a hummer off their seep. The hummer flies to another seep and gets chased again. But the sapsuckers can’t be in the willow all the time. The hummers get their opportunity too.

For a long time I thought there were only two hummingbirds, yet it sounded like six. Finally Dale verified a third. We think it is an adult female and her two fledged youngsters. One has a solid red patch on her throat, the others are more speckled. The hummers are real toadies. They chase each other. We wait and wait and know that much of the time the hummers are feeding on a branch buried in the willow. When one finally comes to the one spot where we can photograph, all too often another hummer chases it away.

Reading about sapsuckers on “Bird of North America Online” was very helpful. We’re watching a classic situation: rufous hummingbirds often nest near a sapsucker’s territory, just so they can take advantage of the sapsucker seeps. The sapsuckers tend to work in one bush – it is easier to defend rather than having their holes scattered about. And, most important, they tend to drill squarish holes when accessing the xylem. Xylem is the part of the bark that carries water and dissolved minerals. When they access the phloem they tend to drill rectangular holes and surround the stem (that’s what we’ve got here). The phloem carries the energy, the sugarery sap. The sapsuckers also eat parts of that inner bark.


  1. Tremendous drawings. Love the information too. You are a patient lady.

  2. Fascinating story, Elva! The paintings and photos are lovely and you deserve a medal for sitting out in the heat to record all of the goings on!