A Pair of White-breasted Nuthatches

The low, soft, nasal calls caught my attention at first – a constant, quiet exchange of notes. They weren’t hard to find – two very small, quick gray and white birds creeping over the branches of a bare-limbed pecan tree. White-breasted Nuthatches.

It was late in the afternoon and I’d just stepped out onto the front porch to go for a walk. The calls were not the brazen awnk-awnk chatter that usually announces that a White-breasted Nuthatch is around, but much more intimate, steady communication between the pair – staying in touch – as they foraged for food in the bark of the tree, working separately but never too far apart.

Although White-breasted Nuthatches have become more common here in the past couple of years, I still don’t see them very often, so it was fun to get this chance to watch them for several minutes. They stayed and stayed in the same tree, moving very quickly and lightly over the larger limbs, going round and round a branch, probing with long, thin, slightly upturned bills, now and then stopping to probe more deeply and flick up bark, or to raise a head and look up in the classic nuthatch pose. Sometimes they spiraled upward as they moved, sometimes down, sometimes straight around the branch.

Because it was a sunny afternoon with clear, filtered light, and because the tree was very close to where I stood, I had an unusually good view of the two small, pert birds – the blue-gray back, neat black crown, snow-white face and breast, and even the rusty smudges of color under the very short tail. The very long bill turns up slightly in a rather comical way, as if it had been bent. They were still there when I finally stepped off the porch and headed up the driveway, under a big, soft-blue sky with high cirrus clouds and balmy air, an afternoon that looked and felt like spring.

We’ve had lots of those days lately – and it would be easier to enjoy them if not for the fact that we’ve had so little winter weather this year it seems as if we’ve had no winter at all. Bluets, henbit and dandelions are all in bloom along the roadsides, the tiny bluets especially pretty, scattered in profusion over the drab, ground-hugging weeds. Japanese magnolias, daffodils and even some forsythia, redbuds and a wild plum here and there are in bloom, though the flowering trees and bushes look hesitant and sparse, as if not quite sure whether to come out – and yet, it’s so warm and the sky is so blue.

The early warmth also has many birds singing, and on this day the sun – which had come out late in the day, after a cloudy start – seemed to have encouraged a lot of activity. Before I even left the porch, while standing and watching the nuthatches, I saw or heard at least 20 different species of birds.

Two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers visited another pecan tree in the yard, one chasing the first one away. A Yellow-rumped Warbler perched on one of the feeders, and Chickadees and Titmice went back and forth from feeders to trees. A flock of about two dozen Cedar Waxwings burst up from a tree and flew away – the first of many Cedar Waxwings I later saw all through the neighborhood, two, three, four hundred in all, maybe, though I didn’t try to count carefully.

A Dark-eyed Junco and several Mourning Doves searched the ground under the feeders, a Northern Cardinal and a Carolina Wren sang, Crows cawed in the distance and Blue Jays cried. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called its spring-time quuurrr, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! and one Northern Flicker called kleer! from the woods across the street. Two Turkey Vultures floated over the treetops, a Mockingbird swooped low across the yard and into a holly bush, a couple of Eastern Bluebirds sang, and a Brown-headed Nuthatch or two began to get closer, traveling through the pines and calling squeaky-dee.

Several American Robins were scattered out across the grass and in the trees in our yards and neighbors yards – and all through the neighborhood. Like the Cedar Waxwings, they seemed to be everywhere.

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