A Visitor From the North

I had planned to get up early and go birding Sunday, but I just didn’t have it in me.

On Friday night, I joined Anne in Durham for the Duke Lemur Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. She’s the DLC’s director, and she’s spent the past year and a half organizing a scientific symposium to mark the milestone: three days of talks and presentations, culminating in a big  dinner-and-dancing gala Friday night.

Afterward, we gathered with a small group for an after-party, and then with an even smaller group back at the hotel for an after-after-party. It was all a glorious good time with dear friends, but we didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. (In hindsight, the bottle of rye that materialized at about 3 may not have been the wisest of all possible choices).

I’m decades past my party-til-4 a.m. prime. Saturday was a Bataan Death March of a day — just survive until it’s over — and that night I collapsed into bed desperate for a long restorative sleep.

Hence my failure to get up early Sunday to go chase birds. It’s the thick of fall migration, and I hated to miss it, but the body needs what it needs. I got up late, made some coffee, and took it out onto the deck, despite unsettled skies that threatened rain.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal
An Unexpected Arrival

At the deck feeder, the usual suspects — Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches — came and went. But as I sat reading the New York Times on my laptop, something tickled the part of my brain that notices when something unexpected has entered the environment. I glanced up just in time to see a small bird zip up and away from the feeder and into the trees.

It was just a brief blur. Nuthatch-shaped. But within the blur I thought I detected black-and-white head stripes. What the hell? Only one nuthatch has that pattern, and it would be a surprise to find one in my back yard.

Of North America’s four nuthatches, two — Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches — are common year-round residents here in central North Carolina. The third, Pygmy Nuthatch, lives only way out West. None of them have black and white head stripes.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch

The fourth, Red-breasted Nuthatch, is primarily a northerly species — so much so that they used to be called Canada Nuthatches. They breed mainly in New England and northward, although a  narrow tail of breeding grounds extends south along the ridge of the Appalachians and into the cool highlands of the North Carolina mountains. Down here in the Piedmont, though, they are normally no more than occasional visitors.

I’ve seen Red-breasted Nuthatches in Cape Cod, and I got a brief glimpse of one eccentric individual that summered in Durham two years ago. The last eBird record in Orange County, where we live, was from over a year and a half ago, in February 2015.

My glimpse Sunday morning wasn’t sufficient for a conclusive ID, but it sent me scurrying inside for my camera, just in case. And within about ten minutes the bird returned: a tiny, handsome fellow, with a blue-gray topside, caramel breast, and black cap and eye-line separated by a pure white eyebrow streak. Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch
A Good Sign

The active little newcomer hung around all morning. It fed like a titmouse: streaking in to grab a seed and then retreating to a nearby limb to hammer at it with its bill. When it was up in the treetops, I could hear it singing (although “singing” is generous; it sounds exactly like someone tooting a little toy horn).

Perhaps beckoned by the tooting, the bird’s cousins — a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches — soon showed up to join the party. Like most bird people, I love nuthatches, with their crazy upside-down ways and spirited energy, and I spent the whole morning enjoying their comings and goings.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Among other things, the day was a sign that we may be in for a good Red-breasted Nuthatch winter. Red-breasted Nuthatches are the most migratory of the North American nuthatches, but they are erratic. Unlike most migratory birds, which move every year on predictable timetables along well-established routes, Red-breasted Nuthatches are mercurial. Some years they stay put near their breeding grounds. But every other year or so, when food supplies, especially conifer cones, fall short in their breeding range, they irrupt, sweeping southward in large numbers, sometimes as far as the Gulf Coast.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

As it happens, the people who keep track of this sort of thing (conifer cone counters?) report that cone production in the northeast is down this year. And the Red-breasted Nuthatches appear to be on the move.

So my bird on Sunday, and others that have popped up here and there across central North Carolina in recent weeks, may well be the vanguard of a wave of Red-breasted Nuthatches that will spend the winter with us.

They’re more than welcome in my yard. It may actually have been a blessing that I was too worn out to get up and go birding on Sunday. I probably missed some warblers, but I enjoyed the rare treat of a three-nuthatch morning, and an unexpected visitor from the North.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
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2 thoughts on “A Visitor From the North”

  1. I am not on the level of you or your readers as to bird ID. Is there a place I can send a photo to help me ID things? As I am a geezer with time and a computer on the porch, started a bird blog.
    Mine is not too good, just me and a bottle of beer.

    I seek help.
    Yardcrap@yahoo.com

    This same bird shows every year at this time and while I ID it, really have no clue. I do have photos, not the quality of yours, but enough to ID with.

    Thanks
    Bill

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