As I write, it is snowing and blowing. Big flakes are latching like Velcro to the deck and driveway. I see shoveling in my future. Winter has arrived a bit too soon for me.
In anticipation of this unfriendly weather, I filled all the bird feeders to the brim. I am looking forward to parking myself by the kitchen window and watching the action unfold.
There’s just one problem. A Cooper’s hawk has already made four passes through the yard in anticipation of getting his own breakfast. An hour passes and no birds are in sight. Forget the hot chocolate, cookies and camera (it’s probably just as well with a list of must do chores nagging at my brain, snow shoveling included).
I am disappointed though since I whittled away the previous afternoon in pursuit of one of my favorite birds and looked forward to more of the same. It was a great excuse not to do laundry.
That special bird was a red-breasted nuthatch (not to be confused with his larger cousin the white-breasted nuthatch who is here year-round). He is one of several species making a guest appearance this winter. The others include evening grosbeaks (I’ve only seen them once in the yard in 30+ years), purple finches (I’ve been lucky enough to spot a few of them already), pine siskins, common redpolls and Bohemian waxwings (if any of these shows up, they would be firsts for me).
The last time I saw a red-breasted nuthatch was two years ago. Before that, I had never seen one in the yard. Why aren’t they here every year?
According to Ron Pittaway, a Canadian ornithologist and expert in such things, their food source of conifer seeds and berry bearing trees did not do well in eastern Canada this year. It’s called an irruption when, for a variety of reasons, including food shortages, birds move en masse beyond their normal foraging range. Their loss of food up north this year is definitely our gain here to the south.
All of these birds are now on my radar. Even if I don’t see every one of them, the red-breasted nuthatch already made my day.
There is something about these little birds that just puts a smile on my face. Maybe it is their bold pattern of colors. Their heads are adorned in flashy white and black stripes, including a distinctive black stripe across the eyes. Their bellies are a rich coppery color that makes me think of a warm, cozy fire. A cool slate gray back and wings round out this compact, feisty bird.
It could be their calls, too. One reminds me of a bunch of giggling, chatty kids who just can’t stop talking. Another one sounds like a nasally foghorn.
Best of all though are the acrobatic moves. How many birds do you know who eat upside down and all around? Add to that the nifty up and down elevator moves on tree trunks. Their yoga-like necks aren’t too bad either as they stretch them in a perfect arc.
They have more moves and grooves than Michael Jackson and Spider-Man combined! It wouldn’t surprise me if they could twirl on their pointy beaks (just kidding).
Then there is the question of their curious name. The red-breasted part is obvious but do they really hatch nuts? Well, not exactly. It all has to do with how they store food to help them get through the winter. They stuff seeds and insects one by one into bark crevices and cover them up with bits of lichen or bark. When it is time to retrieve them, they “hatch” or pry them out of the crevices. How they remember where they are is beyond me, but somehow they do.
This past September, folks counting birds at Cape May saw a flock of nearly 1,600 red-breasted nuthatches pass through in just one day, a new record! If you have conifers on your property, especially spruces, you may find one hunting for the seeds in the cones. They are easiest to spot by their calls (check out www.allaboutbirds.org to listen to their calls) or while climbing up and down the tree trunks. Watch for them hanging out with flocks of chickadees, too.
Don’t despair though if you have no conifers. Fill up your feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, suet or peanuts and with a bit of luck, they may pop in for a visit.
Though I didn’t get out of shoveling snow with our first storm this year, it was made more bearable knowing that we are in for some special sightings from our friends to the north. Keep your binoculars close at hand, have a mug of hot chocolate on standby (along with a piece of pumpkin pie) and give thanks for what could be a great winter bird show.