Tree Mining at Ellsworth Creek: What's that Tapping Sound?

By David Ryan, field forester

As I was working at our Ellsworth Creek Preserve, I heard the soft tap-tap-tapping of any one of numerous avian friends. It wasn’t the machine-gun hammer of a pileated woodpecker, it was much softer. And although thoughts of smaller woodpecker species ran through my mind, I was aware that I have been fooled before by the sound of Stellar’s jays, nuthatches, creepers and other species that make a living mining trees and tree bark for sustenance.

Fortunately, our friend was more concerned with the sap wells he was creating on one of our hemlock trees than he was with me. And although the lighting was poor, he allowed me close enough to get a few shots before inspecting his wells on a different tree.

Meet the red-breasted sapsucker, Sphyrapicus ruber:

A red-breasted sapsucker among its array of sap wells. Photo © Dave Ryan / TNC

Did you know? These striking woodpeckers are seasonally monogamous and have clutch sizes ranging from 4-7. Both parents incubate the eggs for about two weeks and both parents feed the young after they hatch. The young become fledglings in about a month and are dependent on their parents for another 1-2 weeks afterward.

One of several woodpeckers native to the Pacific Northwest, red-breasted sapsuckers are fairly common year-round residents of Western Washington and the Cascades. They live in a variety of forest types and nest in tree cavities of their own making. According to Audubon’s, sapsuckers “get their name from their foraging strategy, which consists of drilling neat horizontal rows of holes into tree trunks and then returning to those holes later to feed on the running sap and the insects attracted to it.

Unlike most woodpeckers, they forage in healthy trees and can actually kill a tree if they drill too many sap holes around its trunk, although this is quite uncommon.” These “well trees” are fairly easy to identify with their geometrically aligned rows and columns of sap wells. Be aware that sapsuckers are not the only species that behave this way; I have witnessed white-headed woodpeckers in Glenwood, Wash., doing the same thing — making neat horizontal and vertical wells in large ponderosa pine trees.

A red-breasted sapsucker creating sap wells. Photo © Dave Ryan / TNC

Although much is unknown about their specific habits, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) rates red-breasted sapsuckers as a species of "least concern." This is because red-breasted sapsuckers have a large range of suitable habitat, and their populations are generally stable and healthy. Therefore, they do not approach the thresholds for a rating of "vulnerable" under the range size, population trend or population size criteria.

So, the next time you are in the woods and suddenly there comes a tapping, as of someone gently rapping at your door, stop and look toward the boles and larger limbs of the surrounding trees. If you don’t see a red-breasted sapsucker, you might likely be rewarded with any number of other insect or sap-dependent birds of the Pacific Northwest — or possibly a talking raven reminding you of lost loves and mortality.

- With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe

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