Birders live with a sense of anticipation, and that reaches a kind of peak at the start of each year. What will be the first bird on the list for this year? How long will the list become before the year ends?
In some years, I have posted myself in anticipation of a certain species – a stray meadowlark, for example, or a northern owl. This year, I looked out the window and saw a white-breasted nuthatch.
It was an entirely satisfying sighting.
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Nuthatches are often the morning’s first visitors at the feeder array in the backyard that Suezette and I share with the birds at our place west of Gilby, N.D., so I wasn’t surprised to see one. As I watched it attack the suet and seeds, it occurred to me that the nuthatch is a species I could realistically expect to see every day of the year, and also one that anyone who looked could expect to see.
Nuthatches are not abundant. Instead, they are widely, but thinly, spread in fairly open woodlands across the continental United States and southern Canada. Not every grove has one, but many backyards do.
These birds come readily to feeders, and they are fairly bold. This combination makes them easy to see and easy to watch. Their antics are amusing, too. Nuthatches are capable of hanging upside down, and they often grasp the bottom of a feeder filled with seed or suet. This probably gives them a competitive advantage over less agile species that spend their time topsides up. Away from feeders, nuthatches use this versatility to glean seed and insects from crevasses in the bark of large, older trees. Sometimes, they move along the bottom side of branches.
They are not gawdy birds. Instead, they seem the embodiment of primness. Their breasts are white, as the name suggests, though the birds sometimes become soiled. Still, the relative paleness of the breast is an important aid in separating the white-breasted nuthatch from the red-breasted nuthatch, which also occurs here, though much less commonly. The nuthatch’s face is white, but the top of the head is black, and the black extends onto the back of the bird, then merges into a bluish-gray or slate color. Nuthatch tails are short, perhaps the better to brace the bird.
Nuthatches reveal themselves with their calls, which are varied. The most commonly heard at this time of year is an alarm call, a nasal “Quank” noise often given when humans show themselves. This call is sometimes doubled, indicating even greater excitement or alarm.
Like other birds, nuthatches become more secretive in nesting season, but I often encounter them in my routine wanderings around our property. The shelterbelts are overgrown and there’s plenty of downed timber. I tell my neighbors that where they see dead trees, I see woodpecker habitat.
Nuthatches appreciate it, too. They are cavity nesters and frequently move into woodpecker holes.
Like nuthatches, both downy and hairy woodpeckers are around throughout the year. They’d be candidates for sightings every day, as well, and so would black-capped chickadees. That’s not quite the end of the possibilities for such a list. The American crow would be on the list, although they become much scarcer in our neighborhood in winter, when they appear to move into Grand Forks, where the pickings for scavengers are much richer than Wheatfield Township, which is sparsely populated. There are only six people in our square mile.
The neighborhood raven passes by fairly frequently, but seeing that bird is coincidental. We’re not always abroad at the same time. Likewise, the great-horned owl. I see one occasionally, but not regularly. Perhaps a vigorous search would turn one up on any given day. That would be true of partridges, too, and also of sharp-tailed grouse. Both species would require a search of likely places.
The blue jays that are so conspicuous at my feeders this winter will remain hidden during the summer months. I would regard a blue jay sighting in summer as accidental.
Birders make many kinds of lists, and the first bird of the year is only a beginning. There are yearly lists and life lists, backyard lists and lists for other birding sites. Annual lists of 200 species or so are achievable in Grand Forks County, and a county life list could run a few dozen more. That achievement would require going beyond the kitchen window, of course.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.