Red-breasted Nuthatches move to Blue Ridge

Published 3:22 pm Thursday, December 30, 2010

As the fall and winter progress, birds from colder climes up north begin to move further south.

These include White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, and a host of winter sparrows and finches.

Many of these species are very regular in their southbound movements, while others are known as irruptive migrants. In our area of Western North Carolina the most wellknown of these have to be Pine Siskins and Purple Finches. Both of these species are very unreliable in their flights and can be common or absent depending on the year.

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This southbound push of birds is mostly dependent on the food supply in the north. Another species that reacts to the seasonal change and the shortening food supply is the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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 very small forklift truck!

This year has seen a very large push of these coniferous loving birds down into the southern states from across their huge Canadian and northern forests range. Many will spend the winter in the lowlands of the Mid-Atlantic States, but others will move even further south into Florida.

There is even a well-documented record of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in a Norfolk woodland in the east of England. How it got that far is open to discussion, but this demonstrates the migratory ability of this small bird.

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.

Their distinctive call notes are also very different from both the White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatches.

The latter species is quite common in our area of the foothills where it prefers stands of Virginia and White Pines throughout Polk County.

There are usually easy to see around the main building at FENCE. Brown-headed Nuthatches 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 to feed on sunflower seeds and this winter it may be possible to see all three species at the same time always an enjoyable sighting of these very charismatic birds.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours.

He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at