A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Present year-round in Sonoma County, but only in small numbers, and rarely reported in the summer months. Sighting a sapsucker is always a treat. Numbers rise somewhat during migration and in the winter months. Breeds in the northwestern part of the county. Prefers coniferous forest for breeding, but uses deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forest at other times of the year. Usually stays at low to medium elevations. Occasionally shows up in wooded suburban areas. Sapsuckers make neat rows of sap wells in trees from which they drink sap, but the bulk of their diet is actually insects, including insects attracted to sap wells, such as ants. Hummingbirds sometimes visit Sapsucker wells; it’s not unusual to see an Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) hovering in the vicinity of a sapsucker making new wells. I’ve seen Townsend’s Warblers doing the same. Red-breasted Sapsuckers make a variety of sounds, but they are usually encountered quietly and methodically tapping trees or flitting from tree to tree, foraging. When absorbed in work, they often tolerate fairly close approach, allowing extended observation. Until around 1983, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Red-naped Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) were considered subspecies of Yellow-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). All three species hybridize where their ranges overlap. 

A medium-sized, woodpecker-like bird notable for its mostly red head, throat and upper breast. Back mostly black, but marked with two messy vertical rows of white splotches. White vertical stripes on the folded wings are usually conspicuous. Breast and belly pale with diffuse streaking, washed with buff tending toward pale yellow. Note white at base of bill. Sometimes white behind the eye as well. Juveniles a dusky brownish grey on head, breast, and flanks.    

Selected county sightings: Sonoma Developmental Center (December 30, 2015, Colin Talcroft)); Bohemian Highway (Dec 27, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (Dec 3, 2012, Bill Doyle); Spring Lake (Sep 28, 2012, Ruth Rudesill); Spring Lake (Mar 28, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (Dec 28, 2011, Ruth Rudesill); Kenwood (Dec 13, 2011, Kathy Parker); Pine Flat Rd. (Jun 16, 2011, Scott Carey); Crane Creek Regional Park (Apr 2, 2011, Colin Talcroft);  Crane Creek Regional Park (Mar 9, 2011, Mary Abbott); Arroyo Sierra Dr. (Jan 10, 2011, Doug Shaw); Spring Lake (Sep 29, 2010, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (Dec 28, 209, Scott Carey)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 79

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 279

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 92

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 286

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 316

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 379-380

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 348

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 231

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 278

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 216

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 173-179

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 168-169

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 47

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 238

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 226

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 274

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 441

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 234

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Red-breasted Sapsucker



© Colin Talcroft, 2009-2017

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Red-breasted Sapsucker, Bohemian Highway, Bodega, December 27, 2012

Sapsucker wells

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 3, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Sphyrapicus ruber

Red-breasted Sapsucker, Sonoma County Developmental Center, December 30, 2015

For comparison: Female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (a rarity in Sonoma County) that appeared at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery in March 2017