Like the sound of the sleigh bell that the child longs to hear in “The Polar Express,” so I had been waiting for a particular sound since October. It came as a surprise after I had given up hope that it would be heard in our small corner of Bolin Creek Forest.
I went out to fill the feeders with a perfect combination of hulled sunflower seeds mixed equally with shelled peanuts. As I was restocking supplies, I heard it distinctly. Not sweet like a bell, but high and nasal like a kazoo.
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw her, four inches and 0.35 ounces of determined, imperious birdness. She hadn’t bothered to fly off to safety, but glared at me from two feet away. Nothing squeaky or delicate about this command, I was being chivvied along to get on with the job, and get off her deck.
The red-breasted nuthatch (sitta canadensis) is one of those winter birds that hails from Canada, southern Alaska, and some of our western states, but spreads itself far and wide when an irruption occurs. There was drought in the conifer forests of Canada last summer, and when supplies of insects and other forage-worthy food runs short, this species of nuthatch leaves its year round home and takes to the air for a better wintering spot.
It isn’t a traditional migratory species, but an irruptive species, which means that in some years you don’t see them at all, and in other years they are plentiful. This was an irruptive year, and I had counted on watching these compact, sturdy little birds all over my feeders.
It was Dec. 11 when the bird finally arrived; a short-tailed packet of sinew and feathers. In typical nuthatch fashion, the red-breasted can run down tree trunks, foraging in bark crevices for hidden insects as it goes. The claws are long and extremely curved for exactly this purpose.
In breeding season, the red-breasted nuthatch excavates a cavity in a tree for its nest. As a protective measure, the bird deposits a rim of tree resin around the opening to the cavity to protect against predators, and perhaps to snare a few insects in the process.
You may wonder how the bird escapes from being tarred and feathered entering its own nest, but they have that figured out. Showing a turn for aerial precision, the bird flies directly into the nest, wings closed, never touching the sticky resin flytrap perimeter of the cavity entrance. To get the resin to the cavity without gumming up their beaks, this species has been observed using a small chip of tree bark to carry and apply the resin to the nest entrance. One smart bird. Smart enough to know who has the peanuts, and smart enough to make its demands known.
Now that the lone red-breasted has installed herself in my neighborhood, I’ve been on a quest for close photos. It’s an abundant species, but I may not see another for a couple of years (maybe four years if the bird has sense enough to remain safely tucked away in Canada).
Most mornings, I sit at my post by the kitchen table, camera in hand, as tripod mounting never gets me to the bird in time to fire off any shots.
What an elusive creature! She races up and down trees, peeks out from between branches, and then dives directly onto the feeder, never pausing for an instant. She digs about for a second, retrieves a peanut half, and then she’s off, flying high into the dense green of a juniper at the far edge of my back yard.
She’s easily approachable, but never stops moving. I went so far as to install a portable blind on my back deck, but the kitchen window gives a greater scope of sight for following her explosive flying style. Sometimes she enjoys foraging on the deck floor itself, as searching the spaces between boards is closer to her innate style of gleaning food from tree crevices using her long up curved mandible. Her company can occupy me for hours at a time.
Seeing this small visitor was the granting of a small wish for the year, a year when other wishes ended in crushing disappointment, but as the poem states:
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.”
Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org