Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Red-breasted Nuthatch Pair

This morning a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches came together to drink from a birdbath only a few feet away from me. They flew into the low branches of a Savannah Holly tree beside the front porch, making soft, sort of muffled squeaks to each other as they moved. Without much delay, one of them flew to the edge of the birdbath and took several sips while the other waited, screened among the leaves, on a branch of the holly. Then the first one flew back into the tree and waited there while the other came for a drink. Then they flew away together.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches have become regular visitors to the feeders and birdbaths in our front yard, and I can’t get enough of watching them and listening to their various calls. I find myself spending much more time than maybe I should just sitting outside and watching them, because it’s so unusual to have them around as we do this year—apparently one of their “irruptive” years when they move south in large numbers from their homes in more northern or western forests.

Off and on all day long, I hear their "ank-ank" calls in the treetops, usually rather soft, but occasionally one of them will call loudly and repeatedly for several seconds, a long, emphatic string of ank-ank-anks that sound exactly like the classic description of tooting a toy horn.

They don’t seem to be particularly shy, but they move quickly and always seem to be looking around alertly. The bright black and white head and eye stripes usually catch my eye first, then the long, thin bill and characteristic shape and posture and way of moving, often as not upside down or sideways on a trunk or a feeder, with the head snaking up frequently to look around. Then when they stay in sight for a few moments, there’s time to see more closely the bluish back and soft reddish breast, the narrow bands of white on the outer edges of the stubby tail, and even the mottled red under the tail.

They are now among the most constant visitors to the feeders, but they usually come one at a time. I don’t think I’ve yet seen them both on a feeder together, so I wonder if they wait for each other as they did for the birdbath – though that may not be the case. They come to both the hanging block of seeds, where one often stays for three or four minutes at a time, and to the tube feeder with seeds, nuts and fruit, where they’re more likely to come and go quickly. They can be aggressive, and often seem to try to chase the Chickadees away, though the Chickadees don’t go far and quickly come back. On the other hand, I’ve seen the Brown-headed Nuthatches chase the Red-breasted away when both are around.

It’s really a treat – and a rare opportunity – to have them around this year.


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