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Williamson’s Sapsucker

A LIFE BIRD

By Jeannie Marcure

One of the most exciting events for me as a birder is adding a species to my life list. Usually this addition takes place while traveling, but in June 2009 it happened to me while bird watching from the comfort of our front deck! Suddenly a bird that I couldn’t identify landed on a nearby tree and started working on the bark. Fortunately, I had my camera close and was able to snap a few pictures for ID purposes, and I’ve included that picture here. Behavior told me that this new arrival was probably a member of the woodpecker family and while we frequently are visited by Pileated, Flicker, Hairy, Downy and occasionally by the less common Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, as well as Red-naped Sapsuckers, this bird was a complete mystery. However, after a little research I was able to identify our visitor as a male Williamson’s Sapsucker.

Since our initial sighting of the Williamson’s we’ve been lucky enough to see this rather elusive bird a few times each summer, and in May of 2012, we were finally able to see and photograph the female as well. That picture is also included.

Sapsuckers are the only members of the woodpecker family that are completely migratory and are usually here in Montana from mid-April until mid-September. In western Montana, we have only two species of Sapsuckers, the more common Red-naped and the more elusive Williamson’s.

In most woodpecker species, the appearance of the male and female is only slightly different, with the male usually sporting a patch of red somewhere. As you’ve probably already noticed from these pictures, the appearance of the male and female Williamson’s is drastically different. The male has a black back, white wing-patch and rump, a red throat patch and a yellow belly, while the female looks somewhat like a Flicker, with a brown head and a densely barred body. IBird tells me that the Williamson’s was named for Robert Stockton Williamson who led an expedition west to find the best route for a rail line to the Pacific. Early birders actually considered the female to be a different species and called it the Black-breasted Woodpecker.

Sapsuckers get their name from their habit of drilling holes in tree trunks and coming back to these later to feed on the running sap and the insects that it attracts. However, they do not actually suck the sap as the name implies, but rather lick it up using the small hair-like projections on the tip of the tongue. Interestingly a group of sapsuckers is collectively called a “slurp.” Unlike most woodpeckers, sapsuckers feed on healthy trees and can actually kill trees if they make too many sap holes around the trunk. If you are having this problem, there are various products available to deter the sapsuckers from working on a favorite tree without harming these beautiful birds.

Preferred habitat for the Williamson’s Sapsucker is a dry, open coniferous forest in the mountains, with aspens or larch often chosen for nesting trees. These chosen trees may have dead heartwood but always have a solid outer layer and the appearance of a healthy tree. Although the Williamson’s often return to the same tree, the male makes a new nest cavity each year and lines it with wood chips from the excavation but nothing else. The 4 to 6 eggs are incubated for 12 to 14 days; this duty, as well as the feeding of the new hatchlings, is shared by both parents. The young fledge after 31 or 32 days and typically don’t spend much more time with the family group. Juveniles are similar to the adults in appearance.

One of the most reliable ways to search for these secretive birds is by listening for their calls and distinctive drumming pattern. Both can be heard at: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Williamsons_Sapsucker/sounds. The call is a soft nasal “churr” which descends in pitch, while the drumming consists of a rapid series of taps, followed by 3 or 4 taps given more slowly.

            Now that spring has finally arrived, our Sapsuckers should be arriving shortly and with a little luck and some careful observation, perhaps you too will get to see a Williamson’s –or maybe even a whole “slurp” of them!

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