Sunday, May 20, 2012

May 19: Monhegan sapsucker

A Monhegan story: a birder friend of mine who lives in New York City (when he's not on Monhegan) was at a bus stop years ago when he noticed a yellow-bellied sapsucker on a nearby tree. Being a gregarious man, he turned to the woman next to him and excitedly announced, "Sapsucker!" "Pervert!" she exclaimed, moving as far away from him as she could get.

When I was in second grade, a boy in my class told our teacher that he was a bird-watcher. She asked him what birds he'd seen, and he said he'd recently seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I remember this because I didn't think such a bird could exist. It sounded so improbable and exotic. Little did I know that almost 40 years later they would be an ordinary part of my life, that others would be looking at me strangely when I casually mentioned seeing a sapsucker.

Sapsuckers are one of our few migrant woodpeckers (along with flickers), and some days on Monhegan it can seem like there's one clinging to every tree. Those lines of holes you see fretting the apple trunks--those were made by generations of sapsuckers. Today, however, I only saw one, this female below, who landed just a few yards in front of the group I was birding with and then posed obligingly for photographs, close enough for even a lousy pocket-sized point-and-shoot like mine.
Even in my slightly blurry photo you can see she lacks the red throat of a male. You can also see the faint yellow wash on her belly, from which her species gets its name. What you can't see is the buffy, almost gold, color that ran alongside her black throat. And what you can barely see, but which I was struck by most, was the delicate barring on her breast contrasting with the bolder spots on her back. A beautiful, intricately patterned bird. Her long pause before us felt like the visitation of some wonderful alien being (with an appropriately strange name). 

Little sapsucker
pecking out her secret code,
tapping into spring.

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