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Appalachian Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sightings on the Tellico District, Cherokee National Forest, With a 1995 Nesting Record

Published by the Tennessee Ornithological Society to Record and Encourage the Study of Birds in Tennessee.
Issued in March, June, September, and December.
VOL. 75, March 2004, NO. 1
The Migrant 75 (1): 1-5, 2004.


Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
116 Rum Creek Drive
Forsyth, GA 31029

Department of Forestry Wildlife and Fisheries
University of Tennessee
PO Box 1071
Knoxville, TN 37901

Though questioned in recent years, some authorities believe there are three subspecies of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) in the eastern United States: S. v. varius which breeds from Pennsylvania north and west through Canada, S. v. atrothorax which breeds from Pennsylvania south in the Appalachians to Virginia, and S. v. appalachiensis, a disjunct subspecies restricted to the high elevations of the southern Appalachians (Ganier 1954, but see Short 1982 and Winkler 1995). Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers of the possible subspecies appalachiensis are smaller and darker and are generally thought to be rare throughout their breeding range (Ganier 1954, Stupka 1963, Nicholson 1997). Whether a subspecies or not, any sightings of this small population are significant. It is of high conservation priority, given its rarity, restricted range, and population declines (Nicholson 1997). In this paper we detail several sightings of Appalachian Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the Tellico District of the Cherokee National Forest.

Between late April and early July from 1995-1998 we conducted between 80 and 213 point counts annually on the Tellico (Monroe County), Hiwassee (Monroe and Polk Counties), and Ocoee (Polk County) districts of the Cherokee National Forest (CNF) (Klaus and Buehler unpub. data). During this time we encountered Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers a total of 5 times, only once during a point count. No sapsuckers were ever detected in the Hiwassee or Ocoee districts. Counts surveyed all habitats in the CNF and covered much of the forest. Counts were randomly located throughout the study area and were stratified by forest type and stand age through the entire range of elevation in our study area (231-1530 m). Remarkably, given the extent of the surveys and the time spent working in the vicinity of a population of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, we saw and/or heard this species on only two days in four years.

The first encounter was on 18 June 1995. After detecting vocalizations of young birds (begging calls), Klaus followed the activity to a tree with an active Yellowbellied Sapsucker nest. Both parents appeared during the next 30 min though neither called or drummed. The chicks were quite vocal, even when the parents were away. Based on vocalizations, Klaus estimated there were at least three young in the nest cavity. The nest was constructed in a red maple (Acer rubrum) snag with a diameter breast height of 28 cm (11 inches). The nest entrance was located on the north side of the tree, approximately 9 m (30 ft) above the ground. The nest tree was on a ridge running north/south, very near a sudden drop in the ridges elevation to the south. The forest types in the immediate vicinity were a transition between hemlock, northern hardwoods, and xeric oak/hickory. Tree species immediately around the nest were predominantly chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) and red maple, with a few eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis). A rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) thicket began downslope to the west while the understory was fairly open to the east, the direction the birds foraged. The ground was covered with blueberry (Vaccinium vacillans) immediately around the nest. A 12-yr old clearcut approximately 32 ha (80 acres) in size began 12 m (40 ft) to the northwest and was visible from the nest cavity entrance. No other sapsuckers were detected that year, though work continued in the area through July. The nest site was visited again in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 2003 by Klaus, in 1999 by Jason Osborne, and every year between 1998 and 2004 by various other point counters. No Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest has been relocated, though in 1999 Jason Osborne located fresh sap wells in the area, and in 1997 Klaus heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drumming nearby at Beech Gap.

No sapsuckers were detected while working daily in the Cherokee National Forest from late April to July in 1996 and 1998. Our other detections were all on 17 May 1997. The weather was clear and warm that day with high temperatures around 18° C (65° F). That morning between 0900 and 1300 four birds were heard drumming and counter-drumming across three ridges (Rough Ridge, Whigg Ridge, and near Beech Gap). Two were seen, while the locations of the remaining two were estimated based on sound (Table 1). At least two of these drumming sites were located within 15m (50 ft) of a recent clearcut. Drumming continued for nearly three hours and could be heard for several miles. The birds were not heard or seen again after this day though work continued in the area for another four months. No nests associated with these observations were found. Two of these locations were very close to previous observations, one near Beech Gap and a second near a 21 May 1995 observation by John Bartlett (Bartlett and Buehler unpub. data).

From 15-18 June 2003 Klaus surveyed these sites in an effort to relocate this population. In addition most of the high elevation ridges (>1,066 m/3,500 ft elevation) of the Tellico district were surveyed for sapsuckers, including all historic sites. Surveys followed a protocol developed by John Gerwin, North Carolina Museum of Natural History, and were part of a larger survey effort throughout the Southern Appalachians. This survey effort used playback tapes of Yellowbellied Sapsucker drumming and vocalizations to increase detection rates. Frequent rains precluded a thorough search of the area; however 16 survey points covering 26 km (16 miles) of ridge were conducted. No Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were detected, and no fresh sapwells were found. Since most records are from
mid-May it is possible that June was too late to survey for this species.

Several Appalachian Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and at least two nests have been located in the immediate vicinity of our detections (Figure 1). Nearly 60 years earlier Ganier and Clebsch found birds at Johns Knob and Stratton Meadows, both within 3km (2 mi) of two of my locations. In addition they found a bird at Beech Gap where we had one in 1995 and 1997 and less than 400 m (_?_ mile) from our 1995 nest site (Ganier and Clebsch 1944, Ganier and Clebsch 1946). Later sightings in this area date from 1973 at Whigg Meadow (Hixon 1996), 1974 at Stratton Meadows (Eller 1974), and 1989 and 1991 in 4 locations in the general area of Stratton Meadows (Nicholson 1997). Including our record from 1995 there are three published nesting records for this area (Ganier and Clebsch 1944, Hixon 1996) as well as a 1991 sighting of fledglings (Nicholson 1997). Given the apparent rarity of sapsuckers during the breeding season in East Tennessee (only two published sightings in Tennessee outside this region), this small area on the Tellico district is remarkable, suggesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the Appalachians may have extraordinary site fidelity or very specific habitat needs which limit their distribution. Regardless of the cause, the area between Beech Gap, Stratton Meadows, and Rough Ridge appears to be an important area for this species accounting for >90% (13 of 15) of the published breeding season records.

Because of their low detectability, it may be that many more individuals are present in the Southern Appalachians. It is also possible that they are present in many areas where none have been detected. For example, systematic surveys in North Georgia in 2002 detected a breeding pair in Rabun County, the second breeding pair ever found in Georgia (Klaus unpub. data). More systematic survey work needs to be conducted for this species to determine its conservation status and track population changes. Current survey methods (Breeding Bird Survey, point counts) do not adequately survey this rare species because of its low detectability, rarity on the landscape, and because it is vocal during a relatively brief period in early spring before most bird surveys are conducted.

ELLER, G.D. 1974. Eastern Mountain Region, Pages 103-104 in Alsop, F. J. (ed. ) The Season. Migrant 45: 100-104.
GANIER, A.F. and A. CLEBSCH. 1944. Summer birds of the Unicoi Mountains. Migrant 15: 61-65.
GANIER, A.F. and A. CLEBSCH. 1946. Breeding birds of the Unicoi Mountains. Migrant 17: 53-59.
GANIER, A.F. 1954. A new race of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Migrant 25: 38-41.
NICHOLSON, C.P. 1997. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville. 426 pp.
HIXON, F.D. 1996. Nesting by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Monroe County, Tennessee. Migrant 67: 28.
SHORT, Lester. 1982 Woodpeckers of the world. Delaware Mus. Nat. Hist. , Monogr. Ser. 4.
STUPKA, A. 1963. Notes on the Birds of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 242 pp.
WINKLER, HANS, D.A. CHRISTIE, and D. NURNEY. 1995. Woodpeckers: An Identification Guide to the Woodpeckers of the World. Houghton Mifflin, Boston MA. 406pp.

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