Before the Snow – White-breasted Nuthatch

Late last Friday morning – a deeply gray, cloudy, cold and windy day – against a background of bare-limbed trees, brown grass and shivering gray-green shrubs, the nasal, burry ahnk-ahnk calls of a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches came as a surprise. We don’t often hear or see them here in our neighborhood, though they seem to come by more often during the winter months. It didn’t take long to find them – little spots of blue-gray and white creeping over and around the forked trunks and limbs of pecan trees scattered around a neighbor’s large, grassy yard.

Small birds with a crisp silver-gray back, black cap, snow-white cheeks and face, and stubby tail – and a white breast that I could not see well from where I stood, they stayed in constant motion, moving quickly and close over the limbs and trunks, probing the bark and lichen with long thin bills, pausing now and then to crane their necks up and look around, and calling to each other frequently.

In the pearl-gray light and brisk wind, they looked like winter birds – all gray and white and black – though in truth they’re year-round residents here. But since they’re not common in our own neighborhood, it always seems special to me to see them.

They were a good reminder of how much I’ve missed over the past few weeks, as the holiday season and other things have left little time for birding and less for writing. But there have been a few other highlights during this time, at least brief glimpses of what’s going on in the world outside houses, restaurants and shopping malls – a Brown Creeper in the edge of our woods on the last day of 2010; a Fox Sparrow and a Sharp-Shinned Hawk on the edge of the old field on December 30; and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers around our house on Christmas day.

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