I drove up Mt. Wrightson as far as I could drive. Madera Canyon Road takes you fifteen miles up into the Santa Rita Mountains. The trail map posted on the bulletin board shows where you are and where you could go. Beyond this point there’s only a steep footpath. When I saw the Red-naped Sapsucker, I knew I didn’t need to go any further.
He was dutifully drilling holes into an oak tree. Aware of my presence, but only mildly concerned, he went about drilling holes for half an hour as I watched.
I wasn’t looking for this bird when he politely presented himself to me. Somewhat shy and only twenty-feet overhead, he circled around his worksite, intent on hiding from me. Out of sight now, but with constant drumming from the back side of the limb giving him away. His black and white backside provided camouflage against the tree, but his red head and red nape clearly blew his cover.
After each series of rapid chisel blows, he’d stop to check his progress and take a predator check. A Cooper’s Hawk would take a Red-naped Sapsucker in a second. He was aware of it and was rightly wary. Not wanting to add stress to his life, I remained calm, so he’d stay relaxed, making us both happy.
The purpose of his drumming was to create a series of quarter-inch holes circling the limb. These wounds to the tree filled-up with healing sap and became a food source for the Red-naped Sapsucker. He’d lap up the sap with his tongue, a tongue with a hair-like tip to it. Sort of paintbrush-like…evolved to the task.
The tree survives these small intrusions and the sweet, sticky sap occasionally traps a tasty insect too…a protein source for the sapsucker. He returns to milk the tree for sap whenever he’s hungry.
In time the wounds heal over. His hole chiseling also provides benefit to others like ants, bugs and hummingbirds. They all enjoy a sap-sip, but he eats first and few would challenge his weaponry. Everyone seems to benefit, except maybe that clumsy, unfortunate insect.