Friday, December 27, 2013

A Persimmon in Every Pot - the Sapsuckers

An agile red-breasted sapsucker feasts on a ripe persimmon.
Everybody likes the persimmon tree in the backyard in the fall. I've written about deer and coyotes picking up fallen fruit beneath the tree, and a raccoon family climbing its branches to feast, but this fall the tree's flying visitors caught my attention. And not all those flying visitors were birds.

Red-breasted sapsucker in the Dipper Ranch persimmon tree
Just as I am not quite sure of the lineage of the persimmon tree, likewise I was uncertain of the pedigree of some of the visiting woodpeckers. I used to think a lone sapsucker, possibly the same individual, came to puncture the ripe orange globes every year and then clean its sticky bill by tearing off bark.

Red-breasted sapsucker taking a nap on (and defending) favorite persimmon.
But after spending a pleasant fall day this year on the porch reading unpleasant reports, frequent interruptions for birdwatching changed my mind. There were lots of birds and several kinds of woodpeckers, but a particular red-breasted sapsucker was the despot of the persimmon tree, at least while I was watching.

My very first ever red-breasted sapsucker showing a fine red head with single white mustache.
Red-breasted sapsuckers are most easily distinguished by their mostly red head and patchy pattern of white and black checks across the wings and back. The red stretches from the top of the head down onto their breast and across the back of the head, but is interrupted by a white mustache that extends from the bill to under the eye and black patches around the eye and under the bill. The white mustache  is often interrupted with a wash of red feathers. Red-breasted sapsuckers can have a white spot directly behind the upper eye and they may have black "earmarks".

The breast of this red-breasted sapsucker has black shades to it . . .
 . . . but as it turns in the sunlight, you see more red.
The southern subspecies of red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber daggetti) breeds in California and Nevada and is described as having less red than the northern subspecies (S.r. ruber) which ranges from Alaska to Oregon. I am guessing that means the daggetti subspecies has more white and black marks in the red. Male and female look alike and by their first winter, the juveniles have replaced their brownish head with the woodpecker red.

Some of the Dipper Ranch persimmons are harvested by people. 
Our tree is an Asian persimmon and is the non-astringent variety commonly called Fuyu, the type that you can either eat firm like a bright orange apple or soft like creamy custard. I think the Dipper tree is one of the 'pumpkin'-persimmon cultivars because its fruits are small and have a pungent sweet taste.

White belly on this red-breasted sapsucker.
The only time I see red-breasted sapsuckers is fall at the Dipper Ranch. All my records are from November and December although that is also when the persimmons are ripe and when I am watching for the special visitors. There are infrequent reports of red-breasted sapsuckers in the Santa Cruz Mountains on eBirds, more often in the winter, so it is likely the ones I see at the Dipper Ranch have migrated to the lower elevation coastal areas for the winter or are passing through on their way to points further south.

Red-breasted sapsucker resting on the trunk between persimmon feeding bouts. The lighter spots on the trunk are where it has been tearing off strips of bark.
On December 2 (the report-reading day), I monitored the persimmon tree from my porch-study and took occasional notes on the activities of a bossy red-breasted sapsucker. It would feed on a swinging persimmon for about 15 minutes, and then go rest on the trunk for another 15 minutes, and repeated this behavior for hours.

Red-breasted sapsucker using its tail feathers to grasp a bud and hang onto swinging branch tip.
Other birds visited the tree: golden-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, house finches, stellar jays, band-tailed pigeons, starlings, lesser goldfinches and cedar waxwings. Most of those were trying to steal bites of persimmons to the annoyance of the sapsucker. Not all persimmons are ripe at the same time and some are easier for a hanging bird to peck at than others, so there was a certain amount of territorial jostling going on.

Red-breasted sapsucker flashing its bright red chin and breast. On the breeding grounds, bill-raising such at this could be a territorial display but in the non-breeding fall/winter, maybe it's just monitoring other birds in the top of the tree.
The red-breasted sapsucker spent hours at the tree, much longer than any other bird, and if smaller birds got too close to its preferred fruit, the red-breasted sapsucker would mount a flying charge and chase them from the tree.

Red-naped sapsucker unexpectedly caught on a trail camera mounted in the persimmon tree for nighttime visitors.
For a few moments at 11:00 am, there were three woodpeckers in the persimmon tree, and one had a wild mix of red, black and white on its head. But the bossy red-breasted sapsucker chased the other two away before I could whip out my binoculars. Later I checked my photos to see if I had any of the wildly striped sapsucker. A few weeks earlier, I had put a trail camera in the persimmon tree to catch nighttime visitors - the camera also caught one daytime photo of an odd sapsucker.

A red-naped sapsucker makes a quick visit to the persimmon tree before getting chased off by the red-breasted sapsucker.
And that's when I realized the Dipper yard was being visited by two representatives of the yellow-bellied sapsucker "superspecies". Formerly thought to be all one species, three species of closely related sapsuckers live in three separate geographic locations of North America: yellow-bellied sapsucker in the eastern United States, red-naped sapsucker in the Rocky Mountain trench, and red-breasted sapsucker on the Pacific coast. The bird with the wild mix of red-black-white on its head was a red-naped sapsucker and it returned an hour later for a quick visit and hasty photos.

Red-naped sapsucker showing its red nape at the back of the head.
The redheadness of the red-naped sapsucker is limited to its forehead and nape. The male and sometimes the female have a red upper throat which is often bordered by black on the breast. This species of sapsucker has two white stripes on the side of the head bordered by three black stripes. The larger white stripe goes backward from the bill and then forwards to dive into the white-black speckled breast.

Red-naped sapsucker showing the multiple stripes of black and white on its head. Because it also has a red patch on its throat, this is probably a male.
Hybridization of red-breasted sapsucker with red-naped sapsucker occurs in areas where these two species overlap. Neither species is likely to breed at the coastal California location of the Dipper Ranch, however, so I am probably just seeing the two different species and perhaps a few hybrids as they migrate through.

Red-breasted sapsucker standing above a circle of sap well holes. Even though the trees are not actively pumping sap this time of year, the sapsuckers still seem to compulsively drill and tear at the bark.
Red-breasted and red-naped sapsuckers drill series of shallow holes in trees from which they sip sap for food. Sapsuckers must work the sap wells throughout the day to keep them flowing, and they will defend the wells from other birds. Hummingbirds in particular like to follow the sapsuckers to steal sap. Both species of sapsuckers will eat insects and fruit and it seems like the persimmon tree is their special rest stop as they arrive or move through in the fall. The way the bossy red-breasted sapsucker tended the same persimmon fruit and chased away other birds is similar to sapsucker behavior described at sap wells.

Which one of the three species in the superspecies of yellow-bellied sapsucker might this be?
But there were more flying visitors to the the persimmon tree: next up are the woodies.

Asian persimmon, Diospyros kaki 
A California orchardist describes his persimmons: Paul Buxman Introduces Three Types of Persimmon
Persimmon video from a fanatic: Five Varieties of Persimmons aka Kaki Fruit

Red-breasted sapsucker, Sphyrapicus ruber
Red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis
Yellow-bellied sapsuckerSphyrapicus varius

Most of the biological information in this post is from E.L. Walters, E.H. Miller and P.E. Lowther, 2002, Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) and Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis), The Birds of North America, No. 663 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.), The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadephia, PA.

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