This past weekend, Jim and I went in search of a Brown-Headed Nuthatch. Now, if you live in the southeastern US, you might be thinking, “Ho, hum. I see those all the time. What’s the big deal?” But here in central Maryland, it is not a nuthatch we see often. They don’t stop by our house and aren’t usually found in our local woods, so we had to go just a little further afield to find one.
The nuthatch that we see most commonly around here is the White-Breasted Nuthatch. There are at least two that live in our yard. They typically show up a couple times a day year-round to quickly snag a seed out of the feeders. They also can be found creeping up and down tree trunks with their distinctive yank-yank-yank-yank-yank call.
Earlier this winter, we also had a Red-Breasted Nuthatch show up fairly regularly. They aren’t always found in this area, but it is an irruption year so we’ve been delighted to have them visit our yard. Their yank-yank yank-yank call is more nasal.
But we are just a little bit outside of the usual range of the Brown-Headed Nuthatch so we don’t see them in the yard. Checking eBird’s species map however, we could see that that they can be found just on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is just a little south and east of us. They have recently been showing up pretty regularly at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, so we headed there.
We have learned that when you are going in search of a particular bird, it helps to do your homework. Obviously, you want to know what the bird looks like so you’ll know when you see one and that is where bird identification books and smart phone apps or online sites like All About Birds or Audubon are helpful. When you look a bird up, be sure to pay attention to what both the male and female of a species look like because they can often look quite different. Many bird books and apps visually default to the male bird, which can make IDing a female you see out and about challenging at times!
Bird apps and websites can also be helpful in providing recordings of a bird’s typical call and songs. Often while Jim and I are driving to a birding spot, we’ll listen to this type of recording on our phone birding apps, so we’ll have a better chance of recognizing the bird’s voice if we are lucky enough to hear it. We also read about the bird’s behavior and where you might expect to find them.
Brown-Headed Nuthatches remind me a bit of a patchwork quilt. They are brown on the top of their head and buff white on their underparts, while the rest is a blue-grey color. (Males and females look similar.) Like other nuthatches, they can be found hopping head first up and down the trunk and branches of trees. Brown-Headed Nuthatches prefer open southern pine forests, especially the upper parts of the trees and they sound just like squeaky toys. They eat insects and pine seeds.
So, with this in mind, when we got to Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, we kept our eyes open for pine trees, which can be found in many parts of the property. Ironically, when we found these birds, it was when we had gone up onto an observation platform to check out ducks out in the water of Marshy Creek. While standing on the platform, we heard the squeaky voices of a pair of nuthatches chattering to each other in the upper parts of the trees right near the platform. Our vantage point gave us a very nice view of these cute little birds. They didn’t seem particularly bothered by people standing there checking them out and went about their business quite happily.
So our mission was a success. While not an exotic bird by any means, it was a bird we hadn’t personally seen before so it was exciting to find them and to watch them for a little while.