My life is about living with nature – here you can live it with me!

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in Allegany State Park


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

In the 1930’s the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was considered “a regular summer bird of Allegany Park but it is not very common. It occurs regularly about the edges of big timber areas such as the Big Basin and other patches of mature Maple-Beech” (A.A. Saunders. 1942. Summer Birds of the Allegany State Park, NYS Museum Handbook 18). Saunders did not document any nesting pairs of Sapsuckers but did indicate that he saw some fledglings. Baird found the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker had gone from 0 breeding pairs in 1930 up to 282 breeding pairs in the Quaker Run Valley in just over 55 years (T.H. Baird. 1990. Changes in Breeding Bird Populations Between 1930 and 1985 in the Quaker Run Valley of Allegany State Park, NYS Museum Bulletin No. 477). I have also found the Sapsucker to be commonly found (if not the most commonly found woodpecker) here in Allegany State Park. But I have also found that they are more commonly heard moving through the woods than being seen. They are quickly identified by their unevenly drumming song and their cat-like call notes that are very distinctive for this species. (See the sound clip below!)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Female and male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I have been very pleased banding many of these Sapsuckers over at the SWAT MAPS banding station this year. The photo above shows that both the female and male have some black streaking along their sides, red on their crown, a white vertical bar on the wing and a black-and-white pattern to their head, wings and back. Males also have the red patch on their throat (females only have red on the crown) which makes identifying the sex of this species easily.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Hatch year male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sep 2006).

Once the Juvenal males start molting into their prebasic molt (coming out of their Juvenal plumage with all black-and-white feathers) they quickly start developing their red crown and throat coloring before the summer is over (as in the photo above). Females are somewhat later in developing the red crown, which they do not acquire until later in the fall/winter.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Adult female and unusual second year female.

Over at the SWAT MAPS banding site we had found an unusual Female which got us into doing a literature search on the molt patterns of Sapsuckers. Coming up with little info on second year females with no red crown feathers, I sent Peter Pyle an email to see what he had thought about this bird. He quickly replied saying “I believe that the relative lack of red indicates a bird that molted more feathers earlier last summer and fall, before migration. I’m guessing that, due to hormonal maturation rates, later-molters acquire more red than earlier molters. I haven’t seen a female YBSA with quite so little red at this time of year, so thanks for sharing.”. If you look closer at the head shot you can see there is one individual feather that had molted back red. (We thought this was a very cool find for the station)!

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Sapsucker and her Sap Wells.

Sapsuckers get their names by drilling rows of evenly spaced holes in trees. They drill through the bark and cambium layer in an oval shape in specific tree species. When the sap wells are flowing they drip with watery sap and attract many species of insects to these wells. Once they wells heal over, the sapsuckers will then redrill the same wells year after year. A large part of the sapsuckers diet is ants but they also actively drink the sap as it flows from its wound. While reading the book “Bents”, they state that (BTW: They talk about captivity holding a few birds and what happens to them as their fact) “this fact affords evidence of an extremely strong character, in confirmation and support of the theory that when the yellow-bellied woodpecker taps trees for their sap he uses the sap as his principal article of food, and not primarily as a bait to attract Insects.” Speaking of attracting things to the sap, I have seen many other critters like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red Squirrel and other warblers using these wells for food. This is such an interesting ecosystem that follows these unique birds, now get out and look for some!

sap well

A Pine Sap Well up close.

I have obviously been holding back on posting these pictures on the blog but I just knew that I wanted to share them as a special post like this. I had fun putting this all together and maybe I can do some others like this as well. Not enough hours in the day and not enough time to do everything!! This photo below shows everyone how much pain I go through in taking these photos for everyone! Each good picture I take of woodpeckers includes 2 or 3 good hits by these guys (see below).

owe . . .



20 responses

  1. Marg

    Ouch! to last photo-they’re good at that! What a fabulous posting Tom I love all the photos and that one female is such an interesting find. Nice of Peter to answer so quickly. Looking forward to getting there soooooon.

    27 June 2007 at 8:25 pm

  2. Thanks for the effort you put into your posts. This one is terrific. The birds you band always look so placid. I had no idea you had to tolerate so much pain!

    27 June 2007 at 9:44 pm

  3. Cool post, Tom. I had a pair of YBSA in my yard earlier this spring, but they do not seem to be common here. I see evidence of their presence in the little holes drilled in my trees. It’s really neat to be able to see them up close. Those beaks look needle-sharp!

    27 June 2007 at 10:06 pm

  4. Ochy! I don’t think I have endured pain to post. Thanks, Tom!

    And a great post.

    27 June 2007 at 10:14 pm

  5. Hahaha… that action shot is great! Excellent profile of a very cool woodpecker. It’s great to see these guys up close. So many of them have a ratty appearance though. Hey, you think you can do Red-headed Woodpecker, or Pileated next? 🙂


    27 June 2007 at 10:49 pm

  6. I saw my first YBSA this Feb (GBBC) and wondered why it’d taken me so long to finally see one. Then I read they were migratory–i’m guessing we’re too warm here in SW OH to see them throughout the year.
    Please take good care of them and send them back real soon!

    27 June 2007 at 11:30 pm

  7. I had to laugh at that last photo. Your pictures are just amazing. I learned so much by reading your posts!

    27 June 2007 at 11:46 pm

  8. winterwoman

    There is always a pair of sapsuckers at Camp Timbercrest. One day we were there sitting under a tree. We watched the sapsucker come to drill a few holes. Then we saw a host of others come to take advantage of those holes. Bees, wasps, butterflies, and even a hummingbird. It was a regular wildlife parade.

    28 June 2007 at 6:02 am

  9. Thanks everyone for such wonderful comments!!
    @ Marg – thanks and was excited to hear from him also! Can’t wait till you can get out here!
    @ Ruth – thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment! Some birds like the woodpeckers, cardinals and grosbeaks are not so easy to photograph.
    @ Ruthie – They are wonderful birds to see and if you watch those holes, I bet they will stop their again during migration!
    @ Trixie – some hurt worse than others! Typically the other songbirds are not that bad.
    @ Nick – thanks and enjoyed taking these shots (well when there is no pain involved). Believe it or not but we don’t get Red-headed Woodpeckers here in this area! It is very strange but you have to go up to the great lakes to see them flying around. Pileated, you can be sure that I will do something if I ever catch one in the net!
    @ Nina – They are great birds to find and guess I am very lucky being able to see them all the time.
    @ Linda – thanks and I wasn’t sure if I should include this in the post or not! Glad that I did!
    @ Winterwoman – Once they find a tree they like . . . they can be easily found on a regular basis! Very cool to have seen everything else using the sap wells.

    28 June 2007 at 8:55 am

  10. I was thoroughly enjoying this entire post but when I got to the end, the last photo really dazzled me. Wonderful (ouch, though). I liked seeing the sap wells – the sapsucker must be sticky.

    28 June 2007 at 9:07 am

  11. They are such cool little birds! I used to have one come to my Bradford pears at my previous house, but have not seen one on Chickadee yet. Wonderful photos!

    28 June 2007 at 3:06 pm

  12. I love it when you do very informative posts like this Tom! I know how much work it is to put a post together, and I really enjoyed reading through this. Your photos are awesome, even though you did have to take a hit for to get them! That’s awesome about your unusual female and the increase in breeding pairs over the years!

    28 June 2007 at 5:32 pm

  13. Oh I know there are no Red-headeds in ASP, but I seem them regularly in Dunkirk and Silver Creek (I saw them all the time when I was younger at my grandma’s in Silver Creek, it was years before I realized they are actually a rare woodpecker in NY)
    So, you should make a field trip… 🙂

    28 June 2007 at 7:25 pm

  14. I’m getting ready for a YBSA post in the next few days and appreciate the info you provided regarding juvenile plumage. I’ll reference it with attribution.
    What a find you’ve been!

    22 August 2007 at 9:41 pm

  15. Thanks Everyone you all rock!
    Zen – I can’t wait to see your post and feel free to email me with any questions you might have !

    22 August 2007 at 10:45 pm

  16. Jessica

    omg it is soooo adorable!!! it looks like my puppy!!!

    2 April 2008 at 10:18 am

  17. Eileen McFadden

    Used to have a single ybs come to the tree touching my front row house porch on a busy Phila., PA street. I would come out the door and just stand looking at it for a few moments and it would quickly fly off down the block; how did you ever get these birds in your hands to photograph?

    3 May 2008 at 8:22 am

  18. @ Eileen – I am a federal and state permitted bird bander and I catch them in nets, place bands on their legs, take measurements and them let them go! It’s part of an on going project looking at breeding birds.

    3 May 2008 at 8:58 am

  19. Corinne

    Your pics are wonderful and I think they have helped me identify the woodpecker at my feeder. First of all, how can I send you my photo to see what you think and if it is a yellow-bellied? Everything I have been told is that they are supposed to migrate further south in the winter, I live in Pittsburgh, PA. I have seen every species of woodpecker expect for the red-headed in my backyard, and this one is a mystery. Second, how did you catch a yellow-bellied for photos? I can barely snap pics w/o them flying away. Thank you.

    12 January 2009 at 12:26 am

  20. Kristi

    here in central wisconsin at my home and others in our neighborhood, we have been visited every morning by the “rapper”, a male yellow-bellied sapsucker who is drumming on our stovepipes, drainpipes and other metal objects! He is quite a humorous fellow. This morning I got some video and photos of him and finally identified him. I will share the photos and vid if they turned out.

    6 May 2010 at 8:27 am

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