By Keith Michael

…there is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

This photogenic Red-breasted Nuthatch is a harbinger of the fall. Photo by Keith Michael.

How do I know this? Because I’m looking at one right now “doing its sapsucker thing” on the trunk of a ginkgo tree at the end of my block. But I can’t “prove” that I’m seeing one, because every time I raise my camera to try to get photographic evidence (for WestView), the woodpecker scuttles around to the back of the trunk, and now it flies off in a bounding blur—on to its next pecking spree.

Like a statue, Millie stands next to me considering whether to take the next momentous step down to the cobblestones to explore the smells left behind by others. I think that she may be getting corgi-arthritis, because at one time, what was literally a hop, skip and a jump off the curb now seems to take an eternity of decision-making. Once in the street, I need to keep a vigilant eye out for the impatience of oncoming cars or bouncing bicyclists while Millie plots her meandering course.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is both very poorly and very well named. When one first sees its black and white striped stocky shape propped on the side of a tree (if you’ve already been able to discern this crafty camouflage against the bark in the first place), the last thing one would notice is that it might have the faintest wash of yellow across its belly. I never caught even a hint of yellow on this individual. Red-capped, or Red-chinned Sapsucker might be more appropriate, though this would lead to confusion with other woodpeckers with similar markings, so Yellow-bellied it is.

Sapsucker is the apt part of its moniker. Even though it is a bird that pecks wood, part of its idiosyncratic feeding strategy is to drill horizontal rows of holes in the bark of a tree, then return to those “wells” to suck up the sap that flows into them from the tree’s inner layers. In addition, insects are attracted to the sweet goo, ensuring a steady diet of protein to go with the liquid carbs. Sapsuckers have relatively short tongues for a woodpecker, as they use their tongues primarily to lick rather than to stick into deep holes or to scavenge for scurrying ants like a Flicker (the inner architecture of a Flicker’s skull is remarkable for how it accommodates its prodigiously long tongue).

Millie’s nose has been tracing the contours around every stone in the crosswalk. If one could map the terrain of the smells that she perceives, what a technicolor fiesta of aromatic topography would unfold!

A weak meep meep meep drifts from a tree across the street. Ah, there it is again—the call of a little tin horn. Camera poised. Inching down the tree trunk headfirst emerges a spunky little Red-breasted Nuthatch. Snap. Snap. Snap. Unlike the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, this buoyant fellow’s name suits him just fine. He does, in fact, have a reddish breast instead of the white shirtfront of our more common White-breasted Nuthatch, and they are known for stashing pine nuts in the grooves of rough tree bark, perhaps caching them “to hatch” later. These peripatetic scavengers only pass through our neighborhood in the spring and fall, to and from their breeding territories further north.

An unexpected cold wind swirls around a corner. Millie shakes her new seasonal coat as leaves whirl down the street.

Ah, summer is only a memory. It is already the fall.

My appreciation to Walter H. Laufer for this article’s title referring to “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” an editorial by Francis Pharcellus Church in the September 21, 1897 New York Sun in response to a letter written by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. If you are not familiar with this timeless editorial, DO look it up.

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