If you are my age, you’ll probably remember the episode of the Beverly Hillbillies when Miss Jane Hathaway appears in birdwatching attire in search of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The idea of this ridiculous character searching for a bird with such a ridiculous name seems like a scene that could only come from the pen of a comedy writer. That episode is probably why several of my non-birder friends think I made the name up. But, there really is a bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Here, in Western Maine, it can be found without too much work.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (photo by Charles J. Sharp) are a migratory woodpecker. As their name suggests, they rely on tree sap for food. Oddly enough, their name is also confusing because their bellies aren’t really yellow. At most, they have a yellowish wash.
These birds leave our area in the fall and spend the winter in warmer areas only to return when sap begins to run in the spring. In fact, some historians speculate that this bird may have led Native Americans to discover maple syrup.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are among the early spring arrivals. They establish a home range where they gouge out and tend small holes in trees in order to feed on tree sap. They spend all season maintaining these “sap-wells”. In addition, the sap-wells attract insects which provide the bird with protien and other nutrients needed during nesting season.
Scientists have noted a range of other birds, as well as squirrels, which have learned to rely on the sapsucker’s work. In particular, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird seems to time its migration with the sapsucker. In this way, this nectar sipping hummingbird can arrive in our region long before the first flowers bloom.
If you are in the woods early this spring, listen for this woodpecker hammering away in an erratic, morse-code style tapping. You just may catch a glimpse of Miss Jane Hathway’s much sought after Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.