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Snow reveals nuthatches at work

By Robert Tougias

Publication: The Day

Published December 07. 2012 4:00AM

It came early this year again. There was a stillness in the air and a calm so great it became unsettling. The smell of downed leaves lingered, and in the groves the oaks were still with color.

But it came nonetheless. The woods were not ready and neither were we. When the zero moment approached the silence became holy, and soon the air was filled with white flakes.

Down they drifted, they settled on logs, landed on rocks and filled my boot tracks on the dirt trail.

Within minutes I was in a white world and autumn was over. I leaned back and looked up and watched the snow drift down from a slate gray sky. I sat there for a long while and the snow began to cover me. A slight breeze whispered through the white pines and then the silence was broken by the call of a single nuthatch. Its nasal "yank, yank" call spoke of winter in the Connecticut woods.

On that day, in that woodland, the tiny white-breasted nuthatch was the only bird I heard. Although common in woods and at the feeder, the ample nuthatch is a fascinating species to observe. For several minutes, I watched the nuthatch work his way head first down a massive old oak. It was searching for wood-boring insects, spider eggs, larvae and gypsy moth clusters.

Soon its mate flew in from the pines and the two moved to another old oak. They worked the trunk over thoroughly and stayed within sight of each other. Nuthatches pair for life and remain within their general breeding territory throughout the winter. The males dominate the females while foraging. I was hoping to see this and therefore tell male from female, but each seemed an equal partner.

At home, the nuthatches are far more aggressive on the feeder. If two swoop in together then it is the male that chases the other out. However, there is a difference between foraging and feeder pecking orders. Nuthatches rarely like to share the feeder except with chickadees and titmice.

Each winter, titmice, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches join up with the chickadees to form a loosely associated foraging flock, the purpose of which is to take full advantage of the chickadees' outstanding ability to locate food and spot danger. Some studies note that nuthatches will only visit a feeder if chickadees are also feeding.

Nuthatches like to select a seed and then fly away. From my picture window I am able to witness nuthatches stow away their seeds in small crevices. At other times, they fly off to a safe location and hack the sunflower seeds open. They say the bird received its odd name for this habit of "nut hacking" shells.

In the snowy woodland the nuthatches were using their long narrow beaks to pry back peeling bark and uncover insects. I could have stayed there in the snow watching the peculiar birds much longer, but they eventually made their way through the forest. So, I brushed off the snow and got back to my feet. While following my snow filled boot prints down the trail, I realized there would be more nuthatches back home at the feeder.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester-based birding author. He is available for lectures. He can be reached at rtougias@snet.net.

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