A White-breasted Nuthatch

The month of December has begun with several warm, sunny days. In the evenings, crickets chirp, and now and then I’ve even heard the raspy song of a katydid at twilight – that’s how unseasonably warm it’s been.

Today the weather turned a little cooler, in the 60s late this afternoon, with a clear blue sky and high cirrus clouds. Birds seemed mostly quiet when I first went outside, but as I was walking down a hill, a small flash of silvery gray flew past me like a missile, straight onto the trunk of a pine near the side of the road – a White-breasted Nuthatch. A small, short-tailed bird with blue-gray back, black cap, snow-white cheeks and a smudge of orange under the tail, it immediately began to move in a spiral up the pine, probing under slabs of bark with its long, slightly upturned bill.

I watched for three or four minutes as it spiraled around the tree, mostly moving upward, but sometimes turning sideways or upside down to examine a particular spot. As it moved and worked, it repeated a low, nasal, intimate, one-syllable call – answered by a second White-breasted Nuthatch making the same kind of call, from somewhere among the trees in a yard across the road.

During the past year, White-breasted Nuthatches have become more common in our neighborhood than they used to be. For several months now, I’ve heard their calls often, but it’s still unusual to see one here – though they’re the most common nuthatch in other areas. So it was fun to find one so close and easy to watch.

Except for the nuthatch, birds seemed quiet and widely scattered – no feeding flocks of blackbirds or smaller birds like sparrows and finches in the grass, maybe because it was late in the day. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from tree to tree, scattering check calls. Chipping Sparrows burst up from the roadside or a grassy yard here and there. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked quietly on the trunk of a pecan tree. Some Dark-eyed Juncos flushed up from the ground with purring, jingling calls of alarm. Eastern Bluebirds sat quietly in the tops of bare trees, facing the lowering sun. Red-bellied Woodpeckers chucked and a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, two Mourning Doves flew past on whistling wings. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, one Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in the woods, an Eastern Phoebe called tsup, and two or three Carolina Wrens sang and trilled.

As I came back down our street toward home, I heard again the deep, foggy hoots of a Great Horned Owl. Tonight I could only hear one. Since first noticing their calls in late November, we’ve heard them hooting several times, usually before and after sunset, always in the same general area, somewhere in the woods not far from our house, it seems. They sometimes sound very close, but it’s hard to tell.

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