Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers: A Newfoundland Enigma

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is common throughout most of its range in North America, but not so much in Newfoundland. It is known to be a scarce breeder in western and central parts of the island, where scattered areas of hardwood forest (primarily birch) exist. It is presumed absent on the Avalon (which has limited hardwood) except during migration when it appears sporadically. The true range and abundance of this species on the island is somewhat of a mystery, however, since most potential breeding areas are isolated and almost never surveyed or visited by birders. Anecdotally, sapsuckers have been seen less in recent decades, even in areas where they were known to have bred in the past.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, like this beautiful male in St. Mary's on April 7, are scarce breeders on the island and rarely seen outside of migration.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, like this beautiful male in St. Mary’s on April 7, are scarce breeders on the island and rarely seen outside of migration.

However, an interesting pattern of sightings on the southern Avalon started coming to light in recent years – especially in Trepassey where a report several years ago led birders to discover an apple tree that is covered in sapsucker holes and indicates years of visits. Several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been seen in Trepassey during spring and (to a lesser extent) fall in the past 3-4 years. Where they are breeding remains a mystery — maybe they head off to other parts of Newfoundland, or (as some have suggested) maybe a small population is making use of pockets of suitable habitat along river valleys on the southern Avalon.

As their name suggests, sapsuckers specialize in harvesting and eating sweet tree sap. They drill shallow holes, allowing the sap to run out.

As their name suggests, sapsuckers specialize in harvesting and eating sweet tree sap. Hardwood trees, which are not very abundant anywhere on the island (and especially not the Avalon Peninsula), provide critical breeding habitat for this species.

A rash of reports on the southern Avalon (at least four individuals at Ferryland, Trepassey, St. Mary’s and Mount Carmel) this past week added a new twist to that conversation. Early for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (even in the Maritimes where they occur much more commonly), it was assumed that these were overshooting migrants that arrived on recent strong southerly winds rather than part of a more regular pattern. And maybe they are. But a visit to two yards in St. Mary’s (St. Mary’s Bay) where one male has been visiting for a week now, raised some interesting questions. Homeowners reported that sapsuckers have been visiting their yards and trees annually for at least a few years now, and the presence of old holes support those claims. One gentleman even reported seeing two last year. They generally stay for a few weeks, and then move on … but to where??

This stunning male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been frequenting a few yards in the little town of St. Mary's for the past week or so. At least three others have been seen on the southern Avalon in recent days, indicating a much larger than usual arrival of this otherwise very scarce bird.

This stunning male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been frequenting a few yards in the little town of St. Mary’s for the past week or so. At least three others have been seen on the southern Avalon in recent days, indicating a much larger than usual arrival of this otherwise very scarce bird.

St. Mary's hardly looks like paradise for a sapsucker. With the exception of a few bird and Norway maples in local yards, habitat is pretty limited.

St. Mary’s hardly looks like paradise for a sapsucker. With the exception of a few birch and Norway maples in local yards, habitat is pretty limited.

The view over the mouth of St. Mary's Bay is nice, though - so maybe these birds have been coming for the scenery ;)

The view over the mouth of St. Mary’s Bay is nice, though – so maybe these birds have been coming for the scenery!

Newfoundland is a very under-birded and under-surveyed island … there is plenty left to learn. The range and abundance of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers is just one small part of a puzzle that has lots of missing pieces.

Here is the yellow belly that gives this species its name ... and the red throat that makes this little fella male.

Here is the yellow belly that gives this species its name … and the red throat that makes this little fellow a male.

Sapsuckers drill telltale holes in a straight line, allowing the sap to run down the trunk.

Sapsuckers drill telltale holes in a straight line, allowing the sap to run down the trunk.

They tend to do circuits in a territory, revisiting fresh holes to suck (or lick!) the sap.

They tend to do circuits in a territory, revisiting fresh holes to suck (or lick!) the sap.

The top photos in this collage show fresh holes with sap running down the tree (the ons on the right were drilled while I was watching!). Below is a line of old holes from a previous year, indicating that this yard has seen sapsuckers before. The homeowner reports that one or two have been visiting every spring for a number of years now.

The top photos in this collage show fresh holes with sap running down the tree (the ones on the right were drilled while I was watching!). Below is a line of old holes from a previous year, indicating that this yard has seen sapsuckers before. The homeowner reports that one or two have been visiting every spring for a number of years now.

The sap was running well on this cool but sunny morning.

The sap was running well on this cool but sunny morning.

Waiting ... waiting ... just a little to the right ...

Waiting … waiting … just a little to the right …

YBSA_Apr72015_6269 YBSA_Apr72015_6380

This female (note the white throat) has been visiting a yard in Ferryland for a few days now. It was far less cooperative than the male pictured above, and this was about the only clear photo I got!

Peek-a-boo! This female (note the white throat) has been visiting a yard in Ferryland for a few days now. It was far less cooperative than the male pictured above, and this was about the only clear photo I got.

This immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was visiting an apple tree in Trepassey during October a few years back. Until yesterday, it was the only sapsucker I had seen on the island during more than ten years birding!

This immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was visiting an apple tree in Trepassey during October a few years back. Until yesterday, it was the only sapsucker I had seen on the island during more than ten years birding!

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2 thoughts on “Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers: A Newfoundland Enigma

  1. Not sure, I think I saw a sapsucker about 10 or 14 days ago. I have seen a few in Winnipeg on my trips there. Nice pictures.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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