Monday, January 30, 2017

Williamson's Sapsucker at Stonewall Mine

A few miles north of San Diego County the Williamson's Sapsucker is a year-round resident. However, in San Diego's lower mountains Williamson's Sapsucker is a rare annual winter visitor only. In fact, in many years only one bird is found by birders. One location that supplies frequent records is Stonewall Mine in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, at about 4700 feet elevation.

The male is a handsome jet black with yellow belly, white wing patch, and white stripes on its face--very striking. The female is brownish and barred somewhat like a Northern Flicker, but stills show the yellow belly of the other members of the sapsucker group of woodpeckers. Both males and females show up in San Diego County.

Sapsuckers aren't very active, generally. In the spring dawn they tap out their unique patterns of display drumming to declare their territories, but are otherwise hard to detect. In summer they fly back and forth to their hungry squealing young in a nest cavity. In the winter they can sit on the side of the tree for minutes or hours at a time, as they tend their sap wells. Sometimes a bird will be on the same tree at the same height seemingly for weeks on end, as they come back to a favorite winter feeding spot. This makes them easy to find if you know the exact spot, otherwise frustratingly difficult--an inconspicuous bump on a log, easily passed by.

Female Williamson's Sapsucker
Female Williamson's Sapsucker, Stonewall Mine, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, California. January 8, 2017. Greg Gillson.
In breeding mountains Williamson's Sapsuckers prefer open yellow pine (Ponderosa or Jeffrey pine). Most of their diet is sap from conifer trees, and insects (often carpenter ants) attracted to the sap wells.

A female Williamson's Sapsucker has been reported sporadically at Stonewall Mine this winter. I went there on January 8th to try to find it and other winter mountain specialties. After walking around the largest pines near the parking lot, I headed west, past the seemingly always-closed restrooms, and worked my way down below the mine. No luck. So I headed over to Lake Cuyamaca for a while.

After I came back to the Stonewall Mine area I was pishing nuthatches and chickadees in for photo-ops below the mine in an opening created by wind-fall black oaks. It was then that I noticed a woodpecker fly in high up in a pine above me. There it is! It was at least 80 feet up, and hidden by the branches of lower trees. I got a couple of photos and moved in closer for a better angle. I looked down to pick my step. When I looked up, it was gone.

Female Williamson's Sapsucker

I have 34 records of Williamson's Sapsucker in my eBird lists. All but 2 are from Oregon. This is my first for San Diego County, and second for California. Wait a minute! I also know I saw a male in the desert in western Arizona one winter. Looking, I see that entire trip is missing from eBird. Since I've transferred all my bird sightings notes into eBird, the notes from that trip must not have survived. I remember I attended a bird count near Phoenix and another near Parker that winter and remember several birds (Vermilion Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, Inca Dove, Dunlin,...). I wonder if I can find those counts online and salvage a few of the birds I saw for my eBird lists? If I can even get the date that would help. December some time in the 1990's? Hmm....

Female Williamson's Sapsucker

All this from one little bird.