by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
As strange as the name may be, yes, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does exist. It’s a relatively small, migratory woodpecker that can be found spending the winter here in Southwest Florida, often lumbering up and down coconut palms.
I’ll bet that even if you haven’t seen the bird itself, you’ve seen the unique feeding site of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. To feed, it drills tiny holes in tree bark, usually in neatly spaced rows, and returns to the holes to feed on the sap that oozes out. As a bonus, it might even enjoy some insects that are attracted to the sap. In addition to the sap and insects, berries and fruit top off of the menu for the sapsucker and are enjoyed mostly from fruiting wild trees in the winter.
As for all woodpeckers, the nesting of the sapsucker is in a cavity in a tree. Both the male and female work together to excavate the cavity. Often, they create cavities in trees affected by tinder fungus, which softens the tree heartwood while leaving the outer trunk firm.
Approximately 4-7 white eggs are laid in the nest. The eggs are incubated by both the male and female. The team effort continues afterwards while both parents feed the young, bringing them insects, sap and fruit. The young leave the nest within four weeks of hatching and after they’ve left the nest, the parents coach them on their sap-sucking technique for a short time. Mating pairs have just one brood per year.
I wouldn’t consider the sapsucker a common sight on the island, since this one photographed is only the second one I’ve ever had the chance to photograph. During the winter months, which are the most active months for island birding, keep your eyes out for a small-medium bird with the typical flight pattern of a woodpecker. Once landing, it will exhibit the closely grasping, very upright position and it might just be that cool looking bird with the funny name, the Yellow – bellied Sapsucker.
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – Fairly small woodpecker with stout, straight bill. Long winged and show a pointed tail when at rest.
2. Color Pattern – Mostly black and white with boldly patterned faces. Males have red foreheads and throats, whereas females just have red foreheads.
3. Behavior – They perch upright on trees, leaning on their tales like other woodpeckers. They drum on trees in a stuttering pattern and feed in neat rows of shallow holes called sapwells, where sap is pulled from the tree along with insects.
4. Habitat – They live in hardwood and conifer forests and spend winters in open woodlands. They occasionally visit feeders.
The sapwells made by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers attract hummingbirds, which feed on the sap. In Canada, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their migration based on the arrival of the sapsuckers. Other birds and bats also visit sapsucker sapwells.