By Simon Thompson
A small nasal trumpet-like sound emanates from the bare woodlands, followed by some light tapping and some more nasal call-notes. A pair of White-breasted Nuthatches flies into view. These small birds of gray, black and white coloring are common and widespread in our deciduous forests and are easy to attract to our feeding stations. Just fill a feeder with sunflower seeds and White-breasted Nuthatches, along with Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, are sure to be among the first visitors to this new food source.
We have all three species of eastern nuthatches in Western North Carolina. These include the aforementioned White-breasted — the most common and the largest of the three species in our area. The small and very cute Brown-headed Nuthatch is mostly restricted to the pine forests of the Coastal Plain and Piedmont, with a small population here in Buncombe County restricted to areas around UNCA and Weaverville. The third nuthatch is the lovely northerly Red-breasted Nuthatch. This widespread bird occurs throughout the northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests from Alaska to Labrador, and has a small range that extends down the Appalachians into Northern Georgia. It’s also the most migratory of the 3 species, with individuals having strayed at far as Western Europe.
We are all familiar with woodpeckers and how they feed by climbing vertically up tree trunks. Nuthatches can do the same, but also have the unique ability to walk down the tree headfirst as well. This is particularly useful as the bird creeps around looking for insects in the bark crevices.
North America has four species of nuthatches — the three eastern ones plus the Pygmy Nuthatch from the western United States. Surprisingly, no species are found in South America, but additional species occur from Western Europe and North Africa east into China and south into Southeast Asia as far as Indonesia, though they don’t make it across Wallace’s line into Australasia.
Back here in Western North Carolina, both the White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatches are resident throughout the year, but, as I mentioned earlier, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a strongly migratory species. It reacts to the seasonal change and the shortening food supply by moving south.
This smaller and more colorful cousin of our familiar White-breasted Nuthatch breeds at higher elevations throughout the Blue Ridge, at the junction of the northern hardwoods and spruce-fir ecosystems. As you take a walk at this elevation during the appropriate season, you can often hear the slow “beep, beep, beep” of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, a sound I liken to the slow reversal notes of a forklift truck! This winter has seen a moderate invasion of this attractive species throughout the southern US, with many being seen as far south as mid-Georgia.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are easily distinguished from the larger White-breasted Nuthatch by their smaller size, reddish-brown underparts and a white supercilium that stretches above the eye. They also have a black eye-line and cap and gray upperparts.
The smaller Brown-headed Nuthatch is quite uncommon in our area of the mountains; it seems to be restricted to certain pockets of Virginia and White Pine in the northern section of Buncombe County. There are usually a couple of pairs at either the Elisha Mitchell Audubon’s Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary or in the pines along the shores of Beaver Lake. They are smaller than both of the other nuthatches, have brown heads and have a very distinctive “squeaky toy” vocalization.
All three nuthatches regularly visit bird feeders, and in the appropriate areas it may be possible to see all 3 species at the same time — always an enjoyable sighting of these very charismatic birds.
Simon Thompson owns and operates Ventures Birding Tours. Contact VenturesBirding@gmail.com.