Learning to Relax in Spring
Now that it’s April, the spring bird migration is picking up momentum quickly. Experienced birdwatchers (birders) know what species to expect when. So as the winter snows melt, it can be said that migrant Canada Geese, Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds for example, will be expected in early March. A short time later the Bluebirds, Sandhill Cranes and Woodcock show up. As March turns to April, it’s prime time to be watching for the kinglets, the first Yellow-rumped Warblers and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Though there are out of the ordinary sightings every year, this phenology (the study of plant and animal life cycle events) is reliable.
I had it in my mind to spend time in the various woodlands around my home in hopes of getting up close and personal to some Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, maybe even get a nice photo or two. With that, I headed out to Shoop Park in Racine, Wisconsin. Shoop Park is basically a golf course on a point of land that juts well out into Lake Michigan. The forest edges, brush lines and beach area can be very productive and it’s one of the local birders favorite locations with many rarities documented over the years.
Though it’s always nice to find a rarity, I had Sapsuckers on the brain. Walking the edge of the golf course I encountered Eastern Phoebe and Golden-crowned Kinglet while watching Red-breasted Mergansers and Double-crested Cormorants fly by along the lakeshore. Starting along the back edge of the golf course, a Sapsucker flew into a tree less than twenty feet in front of me. Too slow, the woodpecker was gone before I raised the camera.
A short time later I found myself in the midst of some good sapsucker activity and I decided to rest there a spell. So often it is our tendency to keep moving as if we must hold to a schedule and a too rushed schedule at that. We need to slow down and relax. It is when we relax, when we slow down and really observe, that’s when nature puts on its best shows.
Over the next forty-five minutes or so, the sapsuckers remained active and focused on a small group of trees. There were numerous skirmishes going on but between those skirmishes, the sapsuckers were feeding. The longer I was there, the more the sapsuckers accepted my presence and behaved naturally, as if I wasn’t there at all. For twenty or thirty minutes, the camera was pretty busy.
Sapsuckers, as their name implies, feed heavily on tree sap and the insects attracted to that tree sap. Not only do they search out trees with the sap running down the trunk, sapsuckers will even drill a series of holes, called sapwells into the tree to encourage the accumulation of sap and the insects it will attract. Pretty smart creatures! These sapwells are not only visited by the sapsucker but also by butterflies, hummingbirds, porcupines and bats!
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is unique among the woodpeckers in that it is migratory. While the other woodpeckers might move around some, they really don’t migrate in the true sense of the word. Sapsuckers do. The sapsuckers I observed and photographed will likely continue north to nest in northern Wisconsin or possibly even the forests of Canada. We’ll see them each spring for a few weeks and then they will be gone from here, nesting elsewhere in areas of more suitable habitat.
When walking a forest looking for a sapsucker, listen for the tapping typical of the woodpecker family. Unique to the sapsucker is the inconsistency of the tapping. Rather than a steady drumming, the tapping of the sapsucker will be irregular. Their call is also rather distinctive in that the most common call is a cat like “mew”.
If you get a chance to get out and roam the forests looking for a sapsucker this spring, I’d love to hear what you’re seeing in your area. Feel free to leave a comment below! Have fun exploring and when you find yourself surrounded by activity, relax and sit a spell!