Our Most Beautiful Protector

A male Williamson's sapsucker drills into a tree at the trailhead of the Cerro Grande Trail in Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico in May 2007. Original: _MG_7695.cr2

On our first trip to New Mexico, my wife and I spent our first day at Bandelier National Monument. Most of the day we wandered about the cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Pueblo, even putting aside our fear of heights to climb the wooden ladders to a kiva high in the cliffs.

We still had enough time at the end of the day to wander up to the western edge of the park and do a little hiking on the Cerro Grande trail. At the trailhead parking lot, this sapsucker flew up into a tree right next to the wooden fence. The tree was obviously a favorite as it had drilled a bunch of irregular holes on this side of the tree and a regular patchwork of squares on the other side.

It was my first time to ever see this sapsucker, a beautiful little jewel, and I was thrilled to be only a few feet away and watch it work the tree for sap. While we were watching, we heard a loud crashing sound a short ways away in the forest. As we looked up, a tree came crashing down across the trail ahead of us, unusual given the lack of wind. If we hadn’t stopped to watch the sapsucker we might have been on the trail when the tree came down, so this little bird became not only one of my favorite wildlife encounters from the trip but perhaps our most beautiful protector.