0201 Bramblings Sapsucker Damage

Sapsucker damage on an ash tree.

With warm weather plaguing us in this unusually warm January, we are a bit concerned about the prospects for the maple season. Typical years have us tapping the trees in the latter part of February, but we are tempted to pull the start date back a bit and start tapping earlier. We always have a crunch month in January when we head to the maple orchard and repair breaks in the maple tubing due to downed trees and branches, moose and deer that head through it when running and wear from age of the materials.

This year we have had unusual times with absolutely no snow in the woods and temperatures at perfect maple weather... freezing nights and days in the 40 degree range. We are praying for a freeze up and a more “normal” few weeks so that we can be ready for the sap when it runs in late February and through the month of March as the trees send sap filled with the nutrients needed to produce foliage up from the roots and into the branches. We shall see what this winter brings and what the traditional maple season will bring us. We are wary about tapping too soon, as the window for the tap in the tree is fairly narrow. Too early, and the tree will begin to heal sooner than the sap flow is over. Too late, and we miss a portion of the season and an opportunity to make syrup.

Barnyard wisdom makes me think it will freeze back up and the warm flows that keep sweeping over us will turn to some Arctic blasts to put the trees back into winter slumber and give us time to finish up our preparations for the season.

I enjoy the pre-season woods work. Too busy to think about the woods in the height of summer and fall with berries, pumpkins and apples to be picked and field vegetables to be harvested, winter and spring are my time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the woods. This week I have enjoyed odd rocks, the different patterns in the bark of different tree species, critter tracks winding under the trees as the deer and squirrels look for acorns and beech nuts, small evergreens nibbled by deer and porcupines and the wonders of the world hidden right under our noses.

One of the ash trees I recently came upon I was worried was riddled with the holes of the ash borer, an insect that is threatening the very existence of the ash tree on U.S. soil as the invaders from China hitched a ride in pallets and wood products from China and found new territory to thrive on untouched ash trees here. The pattern of the borer, however, is a D-shaped hole where the nymph emerges through the bark after tunneling in the life-giving layer of tree beneath the bark. These holes were a circle shape and surrounded the entire tree in rings of work that started where the roots were above the soil at the base of the tree and went all the way up as far as I could see.

I thought it might be a bird, the sapsucker, and sent a photo from the woods to my son the forester for confirmation. It was affirmative. It was the work of a sapsucker. I have seen these holes riddling the bark in our apple orchard, as well, so thought they were familiar. The sapsucker is an interesting bird. Unlike other woodpeckers who are looking for insects or grubs in infected trees, the sapsucker chooses perfectly healthy trees to drill holes and then lick up the sap released from the wound. In trees such as the one I noticed, the damage can open up the possibility of further damage or death when insects or fungus infect the tree wounds that pattern large portions of the tree. If the damage is very close together and interrupts the flow of sap to a great extent, the tree can actually die from being girdled. I was pleased the damage was in an ash tree and not a maple, as we don’t need any more setbacks or challenges in the maple orchard.

If you notice sapsucker damage on a favorite apple tree or shade tree in your yard, you can try to keep the bird away by wrapping the trunk in burlap or wire mesh. It probably won’t work, however, as the birds will just keep working their way up the tree. The woodpeckers nest in dead trees fairly close to where they are feeding, so if you have some old snags around, you can try to cut them down and hope the birds move along to someone else’s woodlot. I hope these sapsuckers stay in the woods and choose non-maples and non-apples when they migrate back here this spring.

Becky Nelson is co-owner of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport, New Hampshire. beaverpondfarm1780@gmail.com.

(1) comment

Editor Staff

Sapsuckers don't really suck sap. They drill the holes in order to return later to eat the insects that are attracted to the sap in the holes.

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