If you see a red-headed, checkered bird drilling into a tree, it might be this week’s Bird of the Week, the Red-naped Sapsucker.
We are fairly accustomed to seeing Hairy, Downy and Northern Flickers in the ponderosa-oak habitat type at this time of year. However, you may be hard-pressed to find a Red-naped Sapsucker lingering in this habitat. Instead, they tend to spend their time during the breeding season largely in aspen forests, developing and defending sap wells. They also frequent cottonwood galleries, mixed conifer and deciduous stands.
Indicators of activity include small holes drilled in parallel lines, producing a replenishing flow of sap during the warm months, attracting various insects. Even hummingbirds have been documented following sapsuckers to their respective wells to take advantage of the offerings.
Sapsuckers have shorter tongues than the average woodpecker, equipped with hairs that help them to “sip” the sweet sap from the wells. Additionally, these birds feed regularly on insects, spiders, berries and fruits.
Sapsuckers drill their own holes for nesting each year. Cavities left behind from previous years provide valuable nesting habitat for nuthatches, chickadees, other woodpeckers, and bluebirds.
For identification, look for the distinctive red throat, forehead, and nape (some females can have a white nape and chin spot) and a vertical white patch on the wings of this mid-sized bird. Though they can have some black and white checkering on their backs and buff on the belly, they can be definitively distinguished from Williamson’s Sapsuckers by the red on top of Red-naped Sapsuckers' heads.
These birds travel a short distance to points south (Arizona/New Mexico/northern Mexico) for the winter months, but spend the majority of the year establishing territory and breeding in the mosaic forests of the Rocky Mountains.
Bird of the Week is brought to you by Audubon Rockies and Weminuche Audubon Society.