Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

Mike Oxley

Cornwall Ontario, Canada

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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius

Cooper Marsh Conservation Area, Lancaster, Ontario, Canada
May 23, 2011

Lots of really earnest birdwatchers down at The Marsh today, all done up in their birdwatching finery and festooned with binoculars, spotting scopes, notepads and such. Great folks to come across and fascinating to talk with! They always have really good tips on where to look and what to look for. I was on my way back to the car when I saw one couple pointing up into the trees, then the mister hastily scribbling something in his notebook.

“Hmmm. Must be something interesting”, I thought. So I watched a little bit more and the subject of their attention flew across the clearing and landed on the treetrunk next to me. No wonder they were a little excited.


Many people think the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a mythical bird because its name is often used to parody bird names. It is not only real, it is in some ways a keystone species. Like all woodpeckers, it excavates nest cavities that subsequently are used by a wide variety of animals, from other birds to squirrels and spiders. Sapsuckers also drill sap wells from which other animals obtain nutritious sap and the insects attracted to it. Hummingbirds often nest near sap wells, follow sapsuckers, and even time their migration to coincide with that of sapsuckers.

And with thanks to

The only sapsucker normally found in the boreal and eastern parts of the continent, this species is our most highly migratory woodpecker. Monotypic (smaller, darker resident birds in southern Appalachians sometimes separated as appalachiensis). Length 8" (22 cm).
Identification Shows less red on head than related red-naped and red-breasted, and the back is more extensively scalloped with yellow-buff.

Adult male: forecrown, chin, and throat red, outlined completely in black; red normally lacking on nape.

Adult female: similar to male, but the chin and throat are entirely white. Juvenile: head and underparts pale brownish barred with dusky black; upperparts extensively pale buff with dusky barring, becoming white on the rump. Unlike the red-breasted and the red-naped, this juvenal plumage is retained well into the winter, with the red coloration of adult plumage gradually acquired through the fall but the black-and-white head and chest pattern not appearing until late winter.

Voice: This species, the red-breasted, and the red-naped are similar in calls and drums.

Call: a nasal weeah or meeww; on territory a more emphatic quee-ark. Drum: a distinctive rhythm of a short roll of several beats, a pause, then 2 to several brief rolls of 2–3 beats each.

Status and Distribution Common.

Breeding: deciduous forests, mixed hardwoods and conifers of boreal regions and the Appalachians.

Migration: main fall movement is September–October; spring migrants arrive in the Upper Midwest and Northeast during mid-April, and the northernmost breeding populations arrive late April, early May. Winter: widespread in the East south of New England and Great Lakes states, south to West Indies and Panama. Vagrant: rare but regular west to California in fall and winter, with a few records north to Washington.

Accidental in Iceland, Britain, and Ireland.

Sony Alpha 700, Sigma 170 to 500 at 460 mm
iso 400, spot metered, F6.3, 1/320 second

Artwork Comments

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