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Speaking of Nature

Basically irresistible

24 point deck head

The sporadic movement of birds across the landscape continues. Here one day, gone the next, and back again next week seems to be a fairly reliable theme for this time of year and it can happen with “regulars” and visitors from afar alike. I made a few observations last weekend that highlight the sort of random, scattered-by-the-wind character of bird sightings typical of this “season in between seasons.”

On Saturday, which was actually a nice day, there were almost no birds in attendance at my feeders. I suspect this is the result of the appearance of the occasional accipiter (a bird of prey) in the area and is made even more likely by the fact that there is a dense stand of white pines to the west of my feeders. On sunny days, which are nightmarish for photography because of the increased contrast between light and dark areas, the predators can hide more easily in the shadows.

Sunday was an entirely different sort of day. From the moment I woke up it was gray, rainy and raw and wouldn’t you know it — there were birds around. The numbers still weren’t too impressive (the species with the most numerous individuals visible at one time were goldfinches with a total of eight birds), but at least there was some activity. So, I put out the seed and waited.

It stayed quietly busy for a couple hours, but at around eleven o’clock there was a sudden surge in activity. The one or two redpolls that I had seen (and subsequently wrote about last week) were bolstered by some new arrivals and, at one point, I saw about 15 in one flock. Along with them were several tree sparrows, juncos, house finches and goldfinches in addition to the occasional appearance by a woodpecker, nuthatch or cardinal. Still no sign of any white-throated sparrows, but there was definitely more activity.

Yet there wasn’t even a hint that there were any pine siskins in the neighborhood at all. The flock of 25 to 30 that had added such life, such hustle and bustle to the yard just one weekend prior was gone. Furthermore, the red-breasted nuthatches that had also been in the yard were also missing. It was the loss of the nuthatches that I found particularly disappointing.

The red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is one of four species of nuthatch that call the United States home. In the world of nuthatches, there appears to be three size classes: small, really small and tiny. The red-breasted shares the “really small” class with the brown-headed nuthatch (S. pusilla), which can only be found in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. To visualize a brown-headed, nuthatch just imagine a bird with a gray back, a pure white breast and a head the color of chocolate milk.

The smallest of them all, holding sole claim to the “tiny” class, is a diminutive bird called the pygmy nuthatch (S. pygmaea). This Lilliputian creature (a mere 4.25 inches in length) is found in the southwestern states and never wanders. As a result, we will only ever see two species of nuthatch in our area — the white-breasted and the red-breasted.

Of the two species, the “resident” bird would be the white-breasted (S. carolinensis), which is also the larger of the two species with a body length of 5.75 inches. The red-breasted nuthatch shares the “really small” class with a body length of 4.5 inches, which really isn’t that much shorter than the white-breasted. For some reason, however, the red-breasted feels like it’s only half as large.

Now, I of all people should not fall victim to the notion that one thing is “better” just because it is less common. It would be like being a parent and admitting that you love one of your children more than another. I am in love with all of the little feathered creatures that come to my feeders and I delight in seeing them no matter how many times I have seen them before. I must be honest, however, and confess that the smallest birds do seem to strike a chord in me somewhere. Perhaps it is because I myself am so large, but whatever the reason, I am completely besotted with little birds. They’re just so damn cute!

Chickadees, chipping sparrows, kinglets and hummingbirds are all members of the Little Bird Club (that’s the LBC to you and me) and the red-breasted nuthatch is a proud, card-carrying member of this special guild. When you add their proclivity for extraordinary acrobatics and the curious “head-down” pose that is the specialty of the nuthatches, you have a bird that is basically irresistible.

The first red-breasted nuthatches appeared in my yard about three weeks ago and it was about that time that I decided to do a series of articles on the winter wanderers that were heading our way. The first to appear was the pine siskin and it got top billing the next week. The second to arrive was the red-breasted nuthatch, which was followed shortly by the common redpoll. But, like leaves on the wind, they are prone to being scattered and the nuthatch has again disappeared.

This happens every year with the white-breasted nuthatches in my yard. They will frequent my feeders on a daily basis when the weather is poor, but when the grass starts to green and the peepers start to sing, they just sort of vanish. I know they are out there because I can clearly hear their songs as the males attempt to woo the females, but they just stop coming for breakfast. I’ve heard of fair-weather friends, but nuthatches are poor-weather friends.

Once in a great while a summertime white-breasted nuthatch will drop by, as if to check on things and make sure the restaurant isn’t closing, but for the most part, they stay away. In our area, the white-breasted nuthatch is a permanent resident and it also has a fairly broad habitat that it finds acceptable. Not so with its diminutive cousin.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a conifer specialist and, as its scientific name suggests, it is more of a northern bird. The various different field guides offer up various different range maps for this species, and in the winter months its range is even more extensive than that of its larger cousin. But, in the breeding season in the East, it tends to stick to northern New England and a strip of the land that straddles the border of the U.S. and Canada.

There is one curious exception to this trend, however. There is a thin finger of purple that follows the line occupied by the Appalachian Mountains. These mountains are tall enough to support the same habitat that is found everywhere in the north, so in our area, the red-breasted nuthatch would best be described as a high-altitude conifer specialist. Down in the valley along the Connecticut River, you might never see this little bird in the summer; up in the Berkshires (up on Mount Greylock for instance) they might be regulars.

Whatever the case, they are delightful birds to have at your feeder and if I have one Christmas wish for you it would be that your yard be visited by a red-breasted nuthatch. I hope you have a warm, safe and very merry Christmas and I’ll talk to you again soon.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com

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