Though the winter forest looks bare and uninviting to humans, it’s a haven for avian visitors from the north. Two in particular caught my attention this past week – but it’s doubtful I would noticed them had they not been vocalizing. Both Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and Winter wrens blend very well into their habitat, but also call or sing regularly in winter making them easy to find.
I still remember the first time I put the Sapsucker’s call together with the actual bird. I was very perplexed, since its high-pitched mewing call bears an uncanny resemblance to the sound a young kitten would make, if it were stranded in a tree. The tree the bird was on, no surprise, was a big old Silver maple in my neighbor’s yard. Maple trees are a good place to spot sapsuckers; the Sugar maple below is where I first observed this forest’s recent winter visitor.
It’s one of the oldest maples in the forest, and shelters a large patch of Trout lilies under its broad canopy. When I checked yesterday, it was dripping sap from freshly excavated sapsucker wells. The wells tap only into the phloem layer of the cambium, which conducts the sucrose rich products of photosynthesis.
Though the perpetrator was nowhere in sight, the week before I got this pic of him digging some fresh wells on the same tree. You can observe these wells almost anywhere there are good sap producing trees, like maples, birches or fruit trees. However sapsuckers are not picky, and the four North American species have been documented mining a huge variety of trees.
Sapsuckers don’t suck sap, but rather lick it with their short hairy tongues, which are different from those of other woodpeckers. Insects attracted to the sweets get eaten too. Other animals are also attracted to the sap – there is research showing Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their spring migration in some regions of Canada to the arrival of Sapsuckers, because of their reliance on the sap from the sapwells.
In contrast to the Yellow bellied sapsucker, the Winter wren may seem like a rather drab, uninteresting bird. It’s also incredibly hard to get a good look at one, lurking as it does in the shadows of heavy brush and rotten logs. In fact these are the best pics I’ve ever gotten of this bird because, wrenlike, it was fussing on top of a Black Locust stump.
Behaving more like a mouse than a bird, it’s usually busy scrabbling about under and inside of fallen trees and brush. The ground level of this forest is superb Winter wren habitat, with many rotten logs, brush piles and small streams. Consequently, North America’s smallest wren can be quite abundant here in winter.
But my favorite thing about the Winter wren is its song. “In the tangled understory of eastern forests, a tiny ball of energy lets loose with a rich cascade of bubbly notes. This songster is none other than the Winter Wren, shaking as it sings its astoundingly loud song.” The Cornell Lab – All About Birds website.
On recent warm days, at dusk, I’ve been privileged to enjoy this song. Though I never saw the singer, in the waning light I could imagine him perched on a high stump, his throat vibrating and tiny tail cocked up.