Hare-walk shoes

Showing off the snowshoes

I’ve recently discovered snowshoeing. Our landlady and her family were big outdoor recreationists, or at least one would be led to believe so by looking at their basement. The sons are grown and moved away, and the father sadly passed away, so when she moved from the house this summer she left most of the winter gear here and encouraged us to use it. This included six pairs of cross-country skis and three pairs of snowshoes. Since there are only two of us (unless you count the dog) we’re perhaps a little over-equipped, but nonetheless grateful for the free “toys”.

Earlier in the week Dan pulled out a couple of pairs of snowshoes and suggested we take Raven out for a quick tour about the property. I think it was the first time either of us had been on snowshoes in years and years. Certainly the last time I recall using snowshoes I was a young teen, and my sisters and I had decided to redeem our Canadian Tire money (basically old-fashioned rewards points for the auto/home/garden/recreation store Canadian Tire) on a pair of snowshoes. The pair we got were a simple moulded-plastic latticework, in white, and most of my memory concerning them is of them hanging in the garage, unused. Probably us kids found them to be more work than they were worth. After all, most of our time outside was spent rolling around in the snow. On those occasions when we decided to strap on some additional footwear, we went “ski-boarding” (for a long while we simply had a single pair of cross-country skis, which we split between two of us kids, each kid getting one boot, one ski, and one pole. We would slide along like one might use a skateboard, alternately pushing with the other foot and gliding on the ski. This was pre-snowboard days, so our made-up name of “ski-boarding” was a play on skateboard).

Snowshoes on snow

Returning to the point of the story: effectively, I had never really used snowshoes, so this was a new experience for me. First thing to figure out: how the heck do you strap these things on? There were two pieces of leather, one that buckled around the toe of your boot, and the other that fastened behind your heel. There was a big gap right in front of the straps, and in front of that was a heavy crossbar. It felt weird to have my toe hanging off into space, so I tried placing my toe on the crossbar and doing the straps up for that first outing. For whatever reason I didn’t have any trouble; perhaps I’d left the straps loose.

When I went to do that the second time I went out on them, though, I kept finding that the toe of the snowshoe would catch in the snow every time I took a step. How annoying! It took me half the loop around the property before I realized what was going on. That hole in the snowshoe, in front of the straps? Yeah, that’s for your toes to fit in.

Demonstrating the snowshoe

I’ve got it down now. Here I am, in an exaggerated demonstration of how the snowshoe works. You strap the shoe up so your toes fit over the big hole. Then when you take a step, you toe tips into the hole, rather than pressing down on the shoe. Since the straps are only attached at that one point near the toes, and the shoe is heaver at the back than the front, this allows the shoe to remain tip-up even while your free are toes-down. (These are self-portraits, by the way, with me setting the camera in the crook of a tree, putting it on 10-second timer, and hurrying to get in position before it goes off. Hence the goofy poses. Also the well-packed snow. Not being able to see how I lined up meant I took several photos to try to get it right.)


While Dan and I were out, we puzzled over two other design features of the snowshoe. The first is that long tail, which dragged on the ground with each step and often got caught under the other shoe, especially when you were trying to turn around. Was it simply an artifact of bending a long piece of wood around, or was there some purpose to it? Unsurprisingly, it’s the latter. The tail of the snowshoe, as it drags along the ground, helps to keep the shoe pointed straight. This was helpful for me, since I found the leather on one of the snowshoe straps to be worn and a bit wiggly.

Snowshoes in snow

And the latticework. In deep fluffy snow, we’d sink in a good three or four inches or more. Why leave all those holes? Why not just make it a solid sheet of leather? There are two reasons, it turns out. The first one is primarily to prevent snow from accumulating on the shoe as it gets kicked up while you walk. The second is to provide grip (Dan realized, as he was descending a small hill) since a solid shoe would have the same effectiveness as a toboggan strapped to your foot. Modern snowshoes are a bit more solid, but still have gaps around the edges to prevent accumulation. They also often have some sort of pick or cleat on the underside for grip.

Six inches of snow under the snowshoe

Despite the couple of inches that the snowshoe sinks in with each step, it’s a huge improvement over wading through on foot. I stopped and used a bit of goldenrod stem to measure how much snow was still beneath my foot here, compacted underneath the shoe. The answer: a good six inches! Of course, in snow that’s less than a foot deep the snowshoe doesn’t make a whole lot of difference energetically from just wading through on foot. And as you can see by some of the photos above, neither does it prevent your pants from getting snowy and wet. It’s still a rather aerobic endeavor, good cardiac exercise. Note the bare hands and folded-up toque in the photos above – I needed to expose some skin to release some of the heat I was manufacturing! Still, once the snow starts getting deeper, where it becomes more of an effort to take each step and you can’t just shuffle along through it, then the snowshoes will make a huge difference.


I’ve noticed even in this shallower snow that I feel more encouraged to go out and break trail while wearing the snowshoes than I would without them. I find myself more adventurous, and I anticipate that when the snow gets deeper they’ll have an even greater influence over where I decide to go and what I check out. I hadn’t been over to the 100-acre woods since before the first snow, so today I decided to strap on the snowshoes and head over to see how it all looked. (Beautiful, of course.)

Although one has to walk a little more straddle-legged than one might normally (probably more noticeable for women than men), one quickly gets used to the gait and it’s possible to move fairly quickly along the trail. I love how each step fits neatly into the curves made by the one previous.

Snowshoe trail

Snowshoes are a development based on the observation that snowshoe hares, with their large, oversized feet, were better able to stay on top of the snow than animals with smaller feet. The traditional snowshoe as we know it is an invention of the North American indigenous peoples, and was especially commonplace in more northern tribes where travel through deep snow was a regular occurrence. Interestingly, each tribe developed its own shapes and sizes and structures for their snowshoes according to where they lived, what they had available, and what they needed to be able to do while wearing them.

The longest belonged to the Cree, and were nearly six feet (1.8m) long and turned up at the toe. They were used for hunting, and the slightly heavier weight of the larger shoe was offset by the greater surface area resulting in less sinkage (the amount the shoe sinks into the snow being referred to as its “flotation”), and therefore less effort to take each step; important for longer trips. Tribes that inhabited the boreal forest, where maneuverability was more important, tended to have narrower and shorter shoes. The current form, resembling a tennis-racquet, is a more modern adaptation apparently developed by lumberjacks in the 1700s. Europeans, especially the French voyageurs (fur-trappers and traders), were quick to adopt the snowshoe for their own transportation.

Pileated Woodpecker male

As a reward for hiking out into the 100-acre woods this afternoon (and to you, for sticking with me through this post), I was treated to a sighting of a male Pileated Woodpecker. I was paused to take a self-portrait of me snowshoeing down the trail, and as I returned to pick up my camera and dust the snow off, a loud swoosh passed not far from me. I was expecting an owl, thinking that perhaps Raven had disturbed one from one of the nearby evergreens. Instead I looked up to see this beautiful Pileated a short distance away, investigating a very stout snag. As they’ve typically seemed to be to me, he didn’t appear all that concerned about our presence, ignoring even Raven dashing about in the snow. He hopped up the trunk, checking out the crevices, until he reached the top. Then he took off, headed away, to search the next snag for goodies.

Pileated Woodpecker male departing


A place to call home

Pileated Woodpecker

Raven was full of energy today. If she’d been cooped up all yesterday I might blame it on not having gotten out, but I took her for her regular walk yesterday and the day before… I think it’s been a while since I’ve missed a day. So I don’t know where it all came from. But in an effort to burn some of it off, I thought I’d take her the “long way around”, into the forest across the road and north to the abandoned property we usually head to, so she could run around rather than walking down the road where she’d have to stay on a leash and travel at my pace.

We never made it as far as the property. We meandered through the forest across from our house, me wandering slowly and keeping an eye out for the Red-shouldered Hawk nest that we know is in there somewhere, and Raven running around like a maniac, her tongue lolling out to the side, the whites of her eyes catching the sun. Normally she rarely goes far, and usually remains in sight, but today she was all over the place, disappearing behind ridges for long enough that I had to whistle for her to return several times . I strongly considered calling her back and putting her on the leash, and turning around for home, although I wasn’t sure what I would do to burn her energy once we were home. I also don’t know what we’re going to do once the forest birds return, because I won’t want Raven running about off-leash and disturbing the wildlife. The upside to there being nothing in the forest in the winter is there’s nothing for her to disturb.

Before I could decide one way or the other whether to take her home, I heard the methodical tapping of a woodpecker working on a tree. It was a strong, loud tapping, suggesting a strong, big bird. I followed the sound, peering through the trees to try to locate its source. Finally, I spotted it, high up on a thick dead trunk. Can you see it?

Pileated Woodpecker

It was, as I’m sure you guessed, a Pileated Woodpecker. High up in the tree, probably at least 10m (30ft), it was working away at a hole on the south side of the dead trunk. The trunk itself was massive, a good two feet in diameter, at least. I ran off some photos from a distance, then decided to try sneaking up a little closer. I wasn’t sure how close I could get given Manic Dog was running around in wide, wild circles through the forest, and I didn’t want to risk disturbing it, so I went slowly. Move a few meters, pause, take some photos, move another few meters, pause, take some more photos. I took over 150 photos of that woodpecker this afternoon.

Pileated Woodpecker

Eventually I got close enough that I could see the bird was a female. Unlike in some of the smaller woodpeckers, where just the male is adorned with red, both male and female Pileateds share the red crest (although the female’s forehead is brown-black while the male’s red extends the full length). You can tell the sexes apart by the moustachial stripe – this is where the sex-specific red occurs, with the male’s moustache being red. Since this bird’s is black, that makes it a she.

Pileated Woodpecker

She seemed reasonably unconcerned by our presence. Although she tipped her head from time to time to glance down at Manic Dog tearing circles through the forest, at times distant, at times directly under the tree (as I got closer and Manic Dog’s manic circles brought her closer to the trunk), it was never more than a quick glance before she returned to her work. If she’d appeared the least bit flighty I wouldn’t have got nearly as close as I did, instead opting not to press her comfort zone. Since she seemed totally unperturbed, I snuck up for a better look.

Pileated Woodpecker

A closer look indeed. Looking closely at her wings reveals her age. There are two things to note. The first is the primary coverts, those little short feathers midway up the length of the wing, along the outside edge, which cover the sheathes of the primaries where they attach to the wing. You can easily see that the outer ones are dark and fresh, and the inner ones are brown and faded. Likewise, when you look at the folded flight feathers, you see a bunch of them in the centre are also brown, compared to the black ones on either side. Both of these are characteristics of a bird in its third calendar year – that is, a bird that was hatched not last year, but the year before (2007).

Pileated Woodpecker

In a bird hatched last year the primary coverts would be all brown and the central flight feathers would be the same as the others. In an older bird, the primary coverts are either completely uniform blackish, or randomly mixed, and the flight feathers might be either uniform or with a slightly faded brownish-black group in the middle. These feather patterns are true for all of the woodpecker species I’ve banded, although it’s really the primary coverts that are key; the central flight feather pattern may or may not occur in any given individual.

It also looks like she might be regrowing an outer tail feather, although it’s hard to say for certain if that’s what that feather is. Although I didn’t actually pay attention to these details in the forest, instead cropping in on the photos and examining them when I got home, age is something you could ostensibly determine with binoculars.

Pileated Woodpecker

In this photo I caught her just as she tensed up for another blow at the wood. Look at the bulge in those neck muscles. Woodpeckers have powerful necks, the muscles well-developed for the strong, repetitive hammering motion they use for excavating both food and nesting cavities. For more on the adaptations of woodpeckers to hammering, check out this post on the Hairy Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

The chips go flying as she works. The cavity appears deep, and broad, and the opening is very rounded. All three characteristics suggest that this is a nesting cavity, not a foraging cavity. The foraging cavities I typically see from Pileateds have rectangular openings, and the excavation is wedge-shaped, tapering in toward the centre of the trunk. The other characteristics of the site – a broad, dead trunk, about 10m up, on the south side of the tree – are also in keeping with typical nest cavity locations. I was a little surprised that it was the female excavating the nest, as I typically think of male birds doing most of the work, but in Pileateds apparently the job is shared equally. In fact, there are a lot of species where both sexes build the nest, and many where it’s just the female (these latter tend to be mostly passerines, waterfowl, hummingbirds and gallinaceous birds).

Pileated Woodpecker

She grabs a chunk of wood with her beak and pulls at it to remove it from the cavity’s side. She and her mate will probably continue slowly working on the excavation for another month and a half. In Ontario, Pileateds generally begin chiseling out a nest hole sometime around mid-March, but don’t lay eggs till early May. The final touches may continue to be made on the nest even while the birds are incubating (I guess with nothing else to do while you’re sitting in there, staring at the walls…).

Pileated Woodpecker

Both sexes incubate, for 2 to 2.5 weeks before the blind, naked young hatch. The young will be in the nest about 4 weeks, and will start poking their heads out probably during the last week of that period. Assuming eggs are laid early May, that would suggest the young will hatch around the last week of May, and will fledge the last week of June. I’ll have to write in on my calendar to go back to check on the status of the nest at the end of May, see if the adults are bringing food to it. If they are, it would be neat to come back before they fledge to see the young sticking their heads out of the nest. I’ve never seen an active Pileated nest before.

Pileated Woodpecker

Ever wondered what a Pileated looks like from underneath? I got to the point where I was standing directly below her, looking up at her bum while she worked. She barely even looked down at me. She continued tossing out woodchips, which landed on the leaf litter around me with soft thunks. Manic Dog tore by, she glanced down briefly, kept on going, focused on her work.

Pileated Woodpecker

When I left, she was still tapping, digging, hard at work building her home of the next two months. I guess, 10 meters up a tree, things like two-legged apes and crazy non-wolves really don’t pose much threat. Two previous homes below – was one of them hers, I wonder?

Other things in the woods


I probably ran off a good 150 photos while out with Dan and Raven at the park the other day. I would likely have taken more but for the fact that we were running out of time (constrained by the number of hours of daylight) and I eventually had to exercise some restraint in not stooping down to photograph something every 20 meters. Also in that we didn’t find the bog; if we had, that would’ve been another 50 photos just in itself. I’m beginning to run out of disk space on my computer, and it’s not a particularly small hard drive. That’s what a 10.1 megapixel camera does for you. I should start printing some of my photos up and selling them as posters, to take advantage of those 10.1 megapixels (since there isn’t much other need for them). I wonder if they’d actually sell.

I take lots of them with the intention of sharing their subject matter here on the blog. Of course, often they get buried as I turn to more interesting or more timely subjects and I never come back to them. But other photos are just simply landscape images that I found really eyecatching or said something to me. Many of these sit dormant, buried in the hard drive somewhere. Some I share here. The above (obviously) falls into the latter category. So many of the water bodies we encountered were reflecting the sky in the most gorgeous, rich, deep sapphire blues. I really couldn’t capture it with the camera, at least not the way my eye saw it and not without any fancy filters or equipment. But I thought this one came close.

Ribbon Snake

We came across this snake on the path. It’s an Eastern Ribbon Snake, Thamnophis sauritus, and can be separated from the similar-looking garter snake by the presence of an additional yellow line along the side (that is, the garter snake has a yellow dorsal line and a yellow belly, while the ribbon snake has a yellow dorsal line, a yellow side line, and a yellow belly). It’s also a slimmer, more delicate-looking snake. I actually nearly stepped on it, only noticed it as it rapidly slithered out of my way into the leaves at the side of the trail. I called to Dan to point it out, and he managed to snag it for a photo. It was fierce, and actually struck out a couple times toward the camera (seemed to pay no attention to Dan, interestingly). It also stunk like a sonuvagun. Most snakes produce a very smelly musk from glands in their vent (the combined reproduction and elimination orifice that reptiles, amphibians and birds all have) that serves to discourage predators. Sure discouraged us, more than the open mouth. Dan put it down quickly once the photo was taken.

Garter snake

Not much further along was this Common Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis. I was rather surprised to encounter one snake on the trail, much less two, given the lateness of the season. However, the weather was nice, nearly 15 C (60 F) and they probably came out for some last filling up before hibernating for the winter. They were sunbathing on the warm leaves when we came across them, and while the ribbon snake scurried off, the garter snake didn’t move at all. Garter and ribbon snakes are closely related, members of the same genus. They’re among the most common snakes, found in suburban gardens and yards as well as the untamed wilds of rural areas.

Pileated Woodpecker excavations

Aside from the two snakes, and a handful of chickadees, Brown Creepers, and a couple other birds, not very many animals were observed. However, they were in evidence from the signs they left behind. This birch stump was at the side of the trail, and looked like it had been freshly worked on within the last couple days. It’s the handiwork (billiwork?) of a Pileated Woodpecker looking for ants or grubs. The size of the excavation, plus the neatness of the edges, identify the species responsible, since other woodpeckers will make smaller excavations without much mess, and larger animals, such as raccoons, will make messier holes. I thought it was neat how the shards of wood cascaded down from the excavation like a waterfall spreading out into a pool at the base of the stump.

Deer browse scraping

Another animal that had left some signs of its presence behind was White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus. We found a few spots with droppings, but also quite a number of these scrapings in the ground. The leaves had been cleared away from the area as the deer looked for things to eat, and the primary reason I knew it was deer and not something else was the presence of the cleft-hoof tracks in the dirt. Deer are known to eat acorns and beechnuts as part of their fall and winter diet, and since the predominant trees in the area were maple, oak and beech, these were abundant in this forest. I suspect they were clearing the leaves in search of acorns, now that most plants have lost their green vegetation.

Brown bear digging and scat?

And finally, on our way back, as we crossed through a grove of pine trees, we came across a large area of ground that had been dug up as the animal searched for food. In a couple spots, in the middle of the excavation, were some piles of loose gray scat. It’s amazing how much you can tell from scat. It’s often very species-specific in its particular characteristics. In the photo above Dan is poking at it with a stick to examine its consistency and contents, both important in determining from what animal the scat came from. There aren’t too many species that will actually dig up the earth like this, as opposed to just scrape at the surface like the deer did. Two of the possible critters, skunk and raccoon, have tight, compact scat. The other suspect tends to have looser dung, as this was, and a varied diet. This looked like it was full of crushed mussel shells (though we didn’t look too too closely to know definitively). After examining the evidence, we thought this was probably the work of a Black Bear, Ursus americanus. Bears are omnivores, eating a wide variety of foods, from berries, to grubs in the soil, to mussels at the lake shore.

So many things to see! One more post tomorrow from that hike, and then on to other things.

Today at Kingsford

Turkey Vulture

Yesterday afternoon as I was aimlessly staring out the window waiting for a burst of inspiration, or motivation, or something else to help me get to work and stop procrastinating, I saw this big, dark shape fly in and land in the large maple in the yard outside. It took me a moment to realize it was a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) – for one because it happened to be a juvenile, with a dark head rather than the bright pink one of adults, but also because I simply wasn’t expecting a vulture to swoop down and land in our yard. Vultures are cool birds, with many interesting habits, including vomiting when disturbed or threatened as a predator-dissuasion mechanism (would work for me), and defecating down their legs to help cool down in the summer through evaporative processes (since birds don’t sweat). Their head is bald because they spend so much time with it buried in gooey, unpleasant places where feathers would get matted and ruined – you get a neat view of a bird’s ear as a result. They are the ultimate air-thermal gliders, it’s unusual to see a vulture flapping. We’ve seen vultures soaring overhead from our property, but this was the first time I’d actually seen one on the property.

This morning I spotted another first-visit bird. Likewise, I had heard Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) calling while I was on the property, and had even seen them flying from the neighbour’s to another spot, but hadn’t actually seen them in our yard. This female was out on the same big tree the vulture had perched in, but was too quick for me to get a shot of her there. She flew over to a tree that was more hidden (at least to me, the viewer) behind leaves and branches, and this was the best shot I could manage. There’s lots of Pileated workings in the dead snags on our property, so I knew this wasn’t the first time they’d been around, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them here since we moved in. Pileateds are the biggest of the North American woodpeckers (only the Ivory-billed, which may or may not still exist, was larger), but are remarkably widespread, found throughout the east, across the boreal forest, and south through the montane forests of the west. Only three North American woodpeckers are more widespread: the Northern Flicker, Downy and Hairy.

Pileated Woodpecker

Woodpecker wuz here


While out hunting for fungus last week, I happened to notice quite a number of trees with woodpecker holes. The absence of foliage on the plants provides a much different view of the forest (or other habitat). Things that are usually obscured are now exposed. Sometimes it’s not that the thing was obscured, but rather that you just looked past it because there was so much going on that you were distracted by other things. But now with the leaves gone, and the ground cover under a thick layer of snow, other things start to pop out at you. Like birds’ nests (but that’s another post). It’s actually possible to determine who made the holes in the tree you’re looking at, if you know the characteristics to look for.

There are five species of woodpecker that regularly frequent the woods around my parents’ place. There are actually seven that can be found in southern Ontario, nine in Ontario as a whole, but only five that are particularly widespread. The first one is the Northern Flicker. These birds actually migrate south in the winter, and very few remain in the province during the cold months. This is because, although a woodpecker, their primary foraging method is by probing the ground for grubs. They will and do forage on trees, but you’re more likely to find them feeding on your lawn. Of course, when your lawn is under several inches of snow, it’s difficult for flickers to make a living. So they head south to warmer climes (this is unfortunate, because they are beautifully plumaged woodpeckers and would add a nice splash of colour to the winter landscape – do a google search for Northern Flicker to check them out).


The smallest of the remaining four is the Downy Woodpecker. They are the quintessential woodpecker of birdfeeders, the bold little guy who is often found hanging out at suet feeders (check out the suet feeder image in my previous post). My parents had some emergency roof repairs done last week, and at one point the workers were tidying up shingles from the ground by the house while the local Downy watched from the suet feeder six feet away. Being the smallest, they also make the smallest holes in trees. The holes in the above image are only about half an inch wide on the largest ones, and can be a quarter of an inch on the smaller ones. Because of their size, Downy Woodpeckers will often perch on goldenrod stalks with galls (those little balls you sometimes see halfway up the stem) and peck out the grub from inside. If you check out galls in the winter, as often as not there’ll be a hole in one side from a Downy (chickadees will also peck out gall larvae – you can tell who was there by the tidiness of the hole – chickadees are very messy as their bills aren’t as specifically designed for the job).


The Hairy Woodpecker looks superficially similar to the Downy, but is actually a larger bird, with a longer, stronger beak. Their handiwork can usually be found on dead tree snags or logs. Their typical hole is slightly larger than that of Downys, up to a couple inches, and often has a slightly rectangular shape to it. You’ll usually find a series of such holes in the log or dead branch, grouped together. The holes in the birch at the top of the post were probably also made by a Hairy. Most woodpeckers have barbed tips to their tongues that they use like spears to snag bugs or larvae hidden deep within the wood. These barbs are coated with a sticky saliva that makes them extra secure. A woodpecker’s tongue wraps back behind its skull, and can be as much as three times as long as the length of its beak! Check out the photos at the above link, pretty amazing.


The largest woodpecker in Canada is the Pileated Woodpecker (pronounced either pill-ee-ate-id or pie-lee-ate-id, depending on your preference – I say the former). These stunning birds are about the size of a crow, with a long neck with white stripes, and a gorgeous red crest. They’re such beautiful birds, I have to post a photo of this female I photographed foraging on my parents’ lawn a few years ago. You can tell she’s a female because, while both sexes have the red crest, the black “moustache” is actually red in males.


Lovely, isn’t she? While she’s foraging on the ground in this photo, Pileateds more often search for grubs on dead trees or logs, or even in live trees with heartrot (decaying inside, where you can’t see it – but the birds can tell!). With those massive, powerful beaks they can really do some damage. Pileated holes are often as big as, or larger than, your fist, going deep into the heart of the tree. As you can see in the photo above, the Pileated who hammered these holes dug into a live tree (the sap is dripping down the bark) into its decaying centre. It must have found a good haul, too, because it made many holes, and digging through the still-live outer bark is no easy feat!


Pileateds also have the power to pry up the bark off dead trees in order to get at bugs right underneath. In the photo above, the bird has removed most of the bark from the trunk by inserting its beak under a loose edge and using it like a lever to flake it off. On this particular tree the bird had started at about our eye level and worked its way all the way up to near the top, about ten or twelve feet of bark-flaking. Also another sign that there must have been good eats underneath!


Indeed, if we look closer, we can see the trails of bark beetles and their larvae. These trails went all the way around the trunk, and as far up as I could see. Speaking of things you see in the winter… but that’s also for another post. If you scroll back up to the Downy’s hole photo, you’ll notice that at the bottom there’s a small bit of bark flaked off there, too. It was taken on the same tree, and they were obviously interested in the same good food source.


The fourth, and final, woodpecker my parents get is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And no, that’s not a made-up name! It is indeed yellow-bellied, and it really does suck sap. Or feeds on sap, anyway, if not by a sucking method. Sapsuckers lack the barbs that the other woodpeckers have, instead having a feathery texture that absorbs liquid to allow the bird to drink by lapping at the sap, much like a cat laps up a bowl of milk. Sapsuckers drill “sap wells” into live trees and feed on the sap that oozes out of the wounds. They have a characteristic habit of drilling in straight rows, like above, that are easy to identify. The sap produced by sapsucker wells is not only used by the sapsuckers themselves, but also provides food to other animals, such as some insects like ants and bees, and hummingbirds, who, particularly in the spring before many flowers are blooming, need an additional source of sweet food. Sapsuckers are also migratory, and leave for the winter. We haven’t seen the sapsucker pair that used to nest on my parents’ property for a couple years, and it may be they’ve died and nobody’s moved into their empty territory. The sapsucker holes in the photo are a few years old.


This last hole wasn’t made by any woodpecker! This is an example of a live tree with heartrot. In this case, a branch was torn off, likely in a storm, and exposed the decaying interior of the tree. Although the outside and branches look superficially healthy, it’s obvious the tree is in decline. Some of the sawdust from the cavity was on the ground at the base of the tree, and I suspect this hole is likely used as a frequent snoozing spot by a raccoon. Seems pretty cozy to me!