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The Return of the Williamson's Sapsuckers

A male WISA perched below the nest cavity.

In 2004, a rare woodpecker called the Williamson's sapsucker (WISA) was spotted in the Nature Park. At that time, biologists believed that the species had been extirpated from the East Kootenay decades earlier, and finding one in the Park was pretty exciting. Over the next several years, KNPS volunteers actively looked for the birds, found some nesting sites, and shared their information with provincial biologists. In 2008, a 72-hectare Wildlife Habitat Area was established by the Province to protect their habitat in the KNP.

And then we stopped seeing WISAs.

A female WISA with a mouthful of ants prepares to feed her young.

For over a decade there have been no confirmed sightings of the birds inside the Park (though they have been found in other parts of the East Kootenay).

Late in April 2021, two biologists walking along Duck Pond Trail as part of an East Kootenay bird survey heard the drumming of what they believed was a Williamson's sapsucker. Members of the KNPS were notified and volunteers headed out to try to confirm the hearing. A male WISA was soon found drumming on a number of dead snags in the area. For a month, volunteers kept an eye on that part of the Park, hoping to catch sight of a female with the male and finally, in late May, a pair of birds were spotted together.

Sap wells drilled into a ponderosa pine by the sapsuckers.

Whether the pair would successfully mate and raise young was now the question, and it took many more weeks of looking and listening to track down a nesting site. One of things we looked for were the trees where WISAs drill holes to release sap. Before the young arrive, tree sap—usually from Douglas fir or ponderosa pine—is the main food source for adults. Once the eggs hatch, ants are the primary staple.

The nest tree.

On July 5th, while visiting a large ponderosa pine that the WISAs had been using as a sapwell tree, we finally saw the male and female making repeated trips to a nesting hole hidden behind some branches far above the ground. With Lyle Grisdale's accomplished photography skills, we managed to get some pictures of both adults carrying ants to feed their young.

Lyle Grisedale finds the only possible sight line to view the nest cavity.

We have been told by biologists that WISAs are sensitive to human activity and not to spend much time near the nest. We are keeping the location of the nest a secret and will likely not visit it again this year. We hope the chicks successfully fledge and head off into the world, and perhaps next year we will see even more Williamson's sapsuckers in the Park.

Feeding the chicks.


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