One gray winter morning I watched a juvenile White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) stop to rest in the pepper tree. A larger, shadowy figure appeared in my peripheral vision and piqued my curiosity. Even in the murky light I could see that the bird had a red head, not something I see on any of the birds that frequent our area. I crept closer and closer, until I could see enough detail to do some rough sketches to take home and use to help me identify this lovely and, to me, exotic bird. While sketching I noticed that the tree was riddled with neatly drilled holes in tidy rows, something I hadn't ever seen before. I hoped that the pattern might help me identify the bird making them.
Once home, I looked in my copy of Sibley's Guide to the Birds and was able to easily identify the bird as a Red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), a bird that drills neat rows and columns of holes in living trees and returns later to drink the sap and eat any insects that may have been attracted to the sap. This led me to hope that I might have another chance to see her. When I arrived the bird was working the tree as though she'd never left. Closer examination showed that the Pepper tree was neatly pierced up and down it's trunk and larger limbs. This bird had clearly been around for a while.
I've returned several times, at different times of day, and most of the time have found the sapsucker working the tree. The last time I was there, an Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) flew in noisily and began drinking sap from one of the holes the Sapsucker had drilled. The Sapsucker immediately moved to another limb of the tree and waited. The intruder continued to drink for a few minutes then flew off. As soon as he was gone the Sapsucker returned as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
Surprisingly, this sapsucker was one of the least shy birds I've encountered. Each time I've gone to observe her I've been able to sit, as long as I like, very near where she's working. She checks on me every now and then but mostly keeps drilling. She often stops and appears to rest while watching the comings and goings of a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii), several Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) and the occasional Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga cornonata) as they forage nearby.
Learn more about Red-breasted sapsuckers: