Birdwatcher’s delight: An irruption of red-breasted nuthatches

Nuthatches: Here is a size comparison between a White-breasted Nuthatch and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. photo by Sharon Stiteler



A rite of migration of me is checking out Doppler radar at night. If there are no clouds outside at night in the spring and fall, and the radar over you lights up with blue, then it means there are thousands of birds aloft on migration. Some nights I’ll even go to the roof of my Twin Cities apartment building to see if I can hear them as they fly over. Migrating birds give chip notes, also known as contact calls, as they fly at night. It’s quite something to hear in the dark.


Recently, migration lit up on radar, and the next morning when I was checking email and having coffee on my deck, the high-pitched, nasally call of a red-breasted nuthatch surprised me. That was the first time in awhile that one had appeared in my Minneapolis backyard. I figured it was just one wayward bird.


The next day my friend David La Puma, who runs Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, posted an observation about red-breasted nuthatches and wondered if we were witnessing a nuthatch irruption. Red-breasted nuthatches are migratory, but some years we get very high numbers, the birds will go way farther south than usual. We’ll even find them in areas where you wouldn’t expect. Unlike the deciduous-loving white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasteds prefer woods with a lot of fir and spruce in them. During irruptions, red-breasted will mingle just as easily with the white-breasteds.


Two nights after David’s post, radar blew up again, and this time was so big, I made a note to get up early and try some birding in my local patch before I headed into my ranger office. There were many warblers working the trees, but I was surprised to find five different individual red-breasted nuthatches among them.


Red-breasted Nuthatch: Male Red-breasted Nuthatches have a much harder facial pattern than females. photo by Sharon Stiteler

And almost a week later, as I type this from a porch in northern Ohio, there’s a red-breasted nuthatch foraging the pines in my in-law’s front yard. This morning, I went on a bird walk hosted by naturalist Jen Brumfield with Cleveland Metroparks at Wendy Park right on Lake Erie and a red-breasted nuthatch was one of the highlights of the day. Perhaps we are having an irruption.


I’ve always been a fan of nuthatches in general. Where woodpeckers and creepers hitch up a tree, nuthatches go down, head first to glean all the tasty morsels birds hitching up may have missed. White-breasted nuthatches have a great nasally call and can almost sound likely they’re laughing at you. Red-breasteds sound that way too, but as if they’ve inhaled a bunch of helium. Red-breasteds are even smaller than white-breasted, which only adds to the adorability factor.


Watch for these birds at your feeders. They enjoy suet, peanuts out of the shell, and black-oil sunflower seeds. They sometimes will mix in with a flock of chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches, but during migration I’ve found them with flocks of warblers and vireos.


Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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