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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Look for this rare winter treat as you hike Missouri’s woods this season.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) is listed as a rare winter visitor to Missouri so I was quite surprised when I spotted one at Shaw Nature Reserve in Franklin County on a bitterly cold New Year’s Day morning. The lone male was high in a persimmon tree, its bill covered with the reddish-orange pulp of the tree’s grainy fruit. My first thought was “downy woodpecker” as I dropped my tripod and camera from my shoulder to the frozen ground, but I soon realized my mistake as I dialed the smallish bird into focus with my 500mm lens. The long, white stripe along the woodpecker’s wing revealed its true identity as a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

I’m usually not so adept at recognizing uncommon birds without help from a field guide, but I had already used my references to identify another yellow-bellied sapsucker, a juvenile, at our farm a year earlier. The somewhat nondescript woodpecker was plucking tiny blue cones from a cedar tree near our house and its unusual appearance caught my attention. After I identified it as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at work about the sighting. Little did I know that a year later I would be face to face with a striking, adult male with a crimson throat and tawny-yellow belly. I felt like I had struck woodpecker gold on that icy holiday morning, and I quickly got down to the business of documenting my good fortune.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker, more common in Missouri during its spring and fall migration, can be found in parks and forests feeding on insects, fruits, nuts, and berries. The sapsucker is known for drilling orderly rows of holes, called sap wells, in trees to access nourishing sap, which also attracts insects as a bonus food source. Territorial, like most other woodpeckers, the yellow-bellied sapsucker defends its sap wells against other birds and even small mammals. It is easy to spot a tree where the fastidious sapsucker has been at work, as shown in the inset photo.

If you spy a suspected yellow-bellied sapsucker on your own hikes or birding expeditions, be careful to rule out the downy woodpecker and hairy woodpecker, which are similar in appearance but have clean, white underparts and lack the white wing stripe of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Also, male downy and hairy woodpeckers do not have the red throat of the male sapsucker.

I spent about an hour photographing the lonely sapsucker as it fed on persimmons. The busy male stayed high in the crown of the tree, leaving me no choice but to shoot upward toward the severe sky of winter. The resulting images featured the brightly colored woodpecker in stark contrast with the white canvas above. At first, I was unhappy with the images but later I warmed to their uniqueness. Over the years, I’ve learned to make the best out of each situation when photographing Missouri’s wildlife and this cold-weather sapsucker was yet another challenge.

—Story and photos by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.

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