A light tap,tap,tap above me alerted me to the possibility of a sapsucker. I had gone to Otero Canyon a good location to see one most years in the fall.
A male Red-naped Sapsucker was hanging underneath a branch as it probed the limb. I wanted to get a better view and a photo, so stepped off the trail and attempted to lean against a rock embankment. I had to be careful, a few more steps and the ground dropped off into a deep arroyo. There wasn’t much room to lean as a prickly pear cactus was hanging over the edge. I found a clear spot, leaned back, and took my picture,
trying not to be distracted by the roar of motorcycle churning its way through another nearby arroyo (Grrr).
After snapping the picture, the Red-naped Sapsucker flew over to a nearby tree and started probing, only to be shooed off by another sapsucker. It flew back to the original tree; and shortly, the other sapsucker followed it. As I went to focus my binoculars on it, I felt prickling on the back of my arm. While balanced against the rocky ledge, I evidently brushed my arm against the edge of the cactus!
After carefully extracting the tiny thorns, I focused my binoculars on the second sapsucker – a female Williamson’s Sapsucker!
Sapsuckers get their name from their feeding behavior. Where most woodpecker species will drill random holes and use their long tongues to extricate insects or larvae, sapsuckers drill a pattern of adjacent holes, often in a line or box, so they can sip the sap.
Their tongues are shorter and have stiff hairs on the tips where the sap sticks. While they might consume insects that become adhered to the sap, insect consumption is incidental.
While there are occasional strays or hybrids, New Mexico has two species of sapsucker – Red-naped and Williamson’s.
During the breeding season, I rarely see sapsuckers. A Red-naped Sapsucker might come into get a drink at the Capulin ’Bird Log’ giving me a fleeting view.
Or I might spot one at the Aspen Overlook in the mountains above Santa Fe.
I often have the opportunity to see a Williamson’s Sapsucker making sap holes on Thompson Ridge, around 8,600 feet, in the Jemez Mountains.
Thompson Ridge is also where the cover photo of our book, Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos, and Northern New Mexico, was taken by birding friend Lou Feltz.
They nest at fairly high elevations. Red-naped Sapsuckers primarily nest in quaking aspen trees, and pick sites with heavy stands of that type of tree, while Williamson’s Sapsuckers prefer coniferous trees in forested areas that are infected by fungus that softens the wood. Red-naped Sapsuckers often return to the same stand of trees – often choosing the same nest cavity as the prior year.
Because of their dependence on sap, they must migrate to lower altitudes to have access to running sap. Our Christmas Bird Count team often spots one or more sapsuckers on our route in Sandia Park,
and frequently, they are reported in Albuquerque neighborhoods.
The Red-breasted Sapsucker that nests in high elevations in California, Oregon and Washington, also can be found at lower elevations during fall and winter.
A friend in Redmond, Washington sent me a photo of one that was outside of her computer room one winter. One of my regular trips to the Los Angeles area to visit my son and his family, a Red-breasted Sapsucker had been reported in the San Fernando Valley. I was excited to be able to locate it (Sapsuckers at Veterans Park) – my life bird sighting.
Every fall I look forward to the opportunity to see both Red-naped and Williams Sapsuckers.