We were just finishing our morning coffee, dawdling at our campsite in update New York, when we looked up to see something precious: A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker feasting on the fluid of a birch tree not 15 feet away.
As we sat still and watched, we realized there were also two fledglings — one just down the branch from Mom and the second perched two feet in the other direction. It was a family outing that looked a lot like a training session.
Here’s how you find a meal, the mother seemed to be saying as her two uncertain offspring watched, albeit somewhat distractedly.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that can be found all across the eastern U.S. and much of Canada. Its breeding and nesting is limited to the upper portion of its range, so we were able to witness this captivating gathering thanks to our swing through the northeast toward the end of July.
As its name suggests, the Sapsucker stands out for its taste for tree sap, and the insects that can be found in the sticky mix. True to her name, the mother Sapsucker worked a tiny opening in the tree for 10 minutes before heading off to another stop.
Then the fledglings took their places at the same feeding spot, with nothing like the confidence of their mom.
Like teenagers everywhere, they spent much of their time preening and fluffing their feathers, then bickered with each other for sport. They chased one another around the tree, and snapped at each other. Only when they’d exhausted all else did they try sucking at the sap – and then for just a few seconds before seeming to lose interest.
But if they fell short at feeding, they did a great job of showing off their magnificent young feathers as they stretched their wings, craned their necks and looked all around for nearly half an hour.
We saw them a couple of more times during a two-week stay at the campsite near Austerlitz, N.Y. But those sightings were mere glimpses compared to our leisurely encounter that morning.
Here’s a gallery of the three Sapsuckers on their morning training session:
And finally, here’s an animation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that lets you watch the Sapsucker’s migration in the U.S. and Canada over the course of a full year: