This distinctively colored woodpecker is found in open pine and fir forests of central and western New Mexico and breeds up the Rocky Mountain chain into southern Canada and down the Cascades of Washington and Oregon and the Sierras of California. It winters in southern Arizona and New Mexico and into Mexico.

Males and females are so different in appearance that they were once thought to belong to different species. Males have a black head and body with white facial stripes and a red chin, broad white wing bars and a bright yellow belly. Females have black and white mottled striping creating a rather cryptic gray appearance against tree bark. A yellowish belly, light brown head, and darker breast feathers may also be noticed on the female.

Williamson’s sapsuckers inhabit coniferous forests and mixed pine-hardwood and aspen forests where they drill holes in horizontal rows that then ooze sap which the sapsuckers then feed on. They also take insects attracted to the sap as well as capturing insects in the air or on the ground. They will also consume berries. Both parents contribute to feeding the nestlings in their yearly brood, the primary nestling diet consisting of ants. Males excavate a new nesting cavity each year and mates engage in bonding rituals involving flying courtship displays and face-to-face gyrations.

The call is a rather raspy, screeching mew call reminiscent of a red tailed hawk’s call. The distinctive drumming of males announces territorial ownership with a series of very rapid strikes.

Female Williamson’s sapsucker. Photo by James Taulman.

The species is named for a military engineer Robert Stockton Williamson, who observed male sapsuckers while surveying for the transcontinental railroad in the western forests in the mid 1800s. Native populations who had no doubt observed the bird for centuries prior to Williamson’s report did not leave a written record of its significance to their cultures. The Audubon society reports the Williamson’s sapsucker population to be in a stable state at present and expects habitat losses in the peripheries of the range as the climate warms.

Photos shown here were taken by James Taulman in the Cibola National Forest south of Tijeras using a Nikon P900 camera.