Seeking a Sapsucker

One of the advantages of working where I do is that there are plenty of places to walk to during my lunch break. If the weather is good, I can get out for 30 to 45 minutes after a quick lunch (or eat lunch while I’m working to maximize my walk time). Sparrows are common in the thickets and blackberries along the country roads and there’s a small pond that is just 5 minutes away that has hooded merganzer and ring-necked ducks when it isn’t frozen over.

Last week I discovered a red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) in a small stand of grand fir alongside Smith Road in the Comox Valley, British Columbia. I got a quick photo before it moved around to the back side of the tree but I made a mental note of the location and planned to return the following day since the bird was obscured by branches.

I think that the first time I really looked closely at red-breasted sapsuckers was when I had just started birding and was volunteering with Laskeek Bay Conservation Society in Haida Gwaii. The project at Limestone Island was primarily focused on the nesting success of ancient murrelets but since most of that work was done at night we monitored red-breasted sapsuckers during the day. I’ve got fond memories of watching sapsuckers visit hemlock “well trees” and noting how often they returned and what other species of birds also used the sap wells. If you’ve got the time and interest the project is well worth supporting and truly a life changing experience. Plus you’ll see some fantastic birds!

On my return later in the week the sapsucker was in the same location. It was a bit of a challenge to position myself to get a photo without distracting branches but fortunately the bird was cooperative and seemed content to feed at the sap wells while I moved back and forth below.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)
Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) – a reddish head and a hint of yellow on its lower breast.

Red-breasted sapsuckers are a west coast woodpecker and can usually be found year round here on Vancouver Island. They’re definitely more common in the summer but they often turn up on Christmas Bird Counts. The red head is distinctive but note also that there is some yellow on the belly (which makes it confusing … is it a yellow-bellied sapsucker?). There is some hybridization between the red-breasted sapsucker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the red-naped sapsucker where ranges overlap, but on Vancouver Island the red-breasted sapsucker is the most likely.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)
Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) on a Grand Fir tree. Note the holes drilled in the trunk of the tree.

In addition to sap, these gorgeous woodpeckers eat ants and other insects that are attracted to the sap wells. Occasionally they’ll eat fruit as well. If you find a tree with a regular series of holes drilled keep an eye open for the red-breasted sapsucker.

It was nice to see this bird and I’ll look for it again on my next lunchtime walk.

If you’re interested in reading more bird related stories check out the upcoming edition of I and the Bird which will be hosted at Birds O’ the Morning. Check out Matt Goff’s interesting post Red-breasted Sapsuckers in Winter over at Sitka Nature as well.