278. Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Most of the neo-tropical migrants, long-distance fliers that spend the non-breeding season in Central or South America, have left the Barrington area by October. But migration still continues, dominated by migrants which make shorter flights to their wintering grounds in the southern part of this country and places just beyond.

One such bird to keep alert for in October is a type of woodpecker, the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This species last passed through the Barrington area in April or early May, on the way to its northern breeding territory. April and October are the months I pay special attention to any medium-sized woodpecker, knowing that it might be a sapsucker.

Birds of Barrington with Wendy Paulson - Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Birds of Barrington with Wendy Paulson – Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

If you have not actually seen the bird, you may well have seen tell-tale signs of its activity: horizontal bands of holes drilled into the trunks of trees, often hickories, gingkos, maples.

Post 300 - Yellow Bellied SapsuckerSapsuckers drill those holes to release sap which they consume with their brush-tipped tongue. The sapwells attract insects that become additional food both for the woodpeckers and for other insectivorous birds. Often the sweet food sustains migrant stragglers whose fellow species have long since left.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is easy to distinguish from other woodpeckers. Yes, it does have a pale yellowish belly, as the name implies, but that is often difficult to see as the bird, in typical woodpecker fashion, clings to a tree trunk. More prominent are the black and white barred back, the bold black and white head markings, and the long white stripe down the edge of the folded wing. Both males and females have red foreheads and the male, as most male woodpeckers do, has additional red feathers, in this case on the throat. Young fall migrants are mostly brown and white; the white wing stripe is the best clue.

It is fairly easy to identify sapsuckers by sound. They vocalize with a soft mewing, somewhat like a catbird. With their beaks, they hammer a stuttering rhythm on tree trunks as they chisel out sapwells.

In the Midwest, the breeding range for the yellow-bellied sapsucker extends from central Wisconsin north into the coniferous and deciduous forests of Canada. It breeds across Canada into Alaska and in parts of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England states. But in Illinois, we get only brief glimpses of the species, as they head south now to their winter range in the southern United States and Mexico, and again in April whey return north to breed.

Locally, during their migration, it’s possible to spot a yellow-bellied sapsucker anywhere there are trees – in nature reserves like Baker’s Lake or Flint Creek Savannas, parks, your own yard, even the streets of Barrington. Unlike with the downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers we can expect to see all winter, you have only two annual windows of opportunity with sapsuckers. So keep your eyes and ears open!

Photo Credit: Dominic Sherony via Compfight cc


About the Author

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in District 220 and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, she taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands.

She has a regular schedule of bird walks in the Barrington area sponsored by Citizens for Conservation and Audubon Chicago Region.

Wendy is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

She and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

For more information about a cause close to Wendy’s heart here in Barrington, visit CitizensForConservation.org.

Wendy is also a regular contributor at 365Barrington.com sharing profiles of birds found in the Barrington area. CLICK HERE to read all of Wendy’s posts published in our Birds of Barrington series and watch for her next contribution which will be published early next month.

Do you have a question about birds you’ve seen in Barrington? Just enter you question in the comments box for this post and we’ll ask Wendy!


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