No-Neck No-Nonsense Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

 

If you come across a small hyperactive bird foraging upside-down along a trunk or large branch you are probably seeing a nuthatch.  If you hear a clownish nasal call you can be sure.  I came across this poem by Francis Stella that describes these birds perfectly.

White-breasted Nuthatch

From bark to bark he darts in flight,

This craning no-neck woodland sprite–

Our all-season tree inspector

And invertebrate collector

Who claims old treeholes for his den.

Part woodpecker, and partly wren,

And bearing feathers that would place

Him in a pygmy blue-jay race,

He barely sings, he doesn’t drum,

But climbing up and down the plumb

Not only facing up but down

Is the nuthatch’s renown.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis    (click on photo to zoom)

 

The trunks he wends across his days

Are all his upright alleyways,

And as he charts his alpine course

We hear his scratch and nasal Morse–

His little traffic clearing horn

That seems less urgent than inborn.

His escalades will carry him

From bole to bough to outer limb

And all the while around he’ll wind

Above, before, below, behind–

No tree-climber’s quite as stellar

As this spry no-hands rapeller.

Brown-headed Nuthatches

Brown-headed Nuthatches, Sitta pusilla

 

All his circumambulations!

And determined excavations,

When with a probe and peck or flitch

This aide relies a broadleaf’s itch

And earns the morsel of some pest

He’ll eat or stash or bring to nest–

He saves for when the hunts are harder

In his secret winter larder.

And winter’s when he comes for seed or

Suet at the backyard feeder.

But he only stays for just a hello.

He’s strictly carry-out, this fellow–

Pygmy Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

 

He bills one seed then off he flits

And on a tree that seed he splits

To have the kernel–hence the name,

And soon he’s back for just the same.

The way he cranes about to see

When scaling up or down a tree!

This no-neck with his upturned beak

Could use a chiropractic tweak–

And music lessons, in our view,

But no-neck is no-nonsense too.

And with the nuthatch we won’t wrangle.

We see things from a different angle.

Francis Stella

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The White-breasted Nuthatch is the largest North American member of the acrobatic Sitta genus and a year-around resident of the majority of the continental U.S.  The Red-breasted is a slightly smaller short-distance migrator breeding in the pine forests along the U.S. Canadian border.  It winters almost anywhere in the lower 48 depending on food sources, with the exception of south Florida and Texas.  The Brown-headed and Pygmy Nuthatches are less common regional birds.  The Brown-headed is a bird of the Southeastern states with the Chesapeake Bay at the northern edge of its range.  The Pygmy is a bird of the long-needled pine forests of the western U.S.  I saw my first one in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Photography of these active birds can be difficult.  They are frequent feeder visitors so you can resort to that setting, although I prefer the more natural shots in the trees.  You often hear these bird’s nasal call long before you see them.  I have occasionally attracted them closer for a shot by playing their call on my cell phone.  Just don’t overdo this technique because, as Stella said, “no-neck is no-nonsense too.”

Birding in Bean Town

Boston Commons

Boston Common

 

Urban birding is a whole new kettle of fish for me.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its unique and satisfying aspects, however the rural birder needs to adapt, just as the birds have.  I visited my daughter’s family in Bean Town, aka Boston, this November.  They are hooked on the urban life style; no car, high-rise accommodations, small footprint, public transportation, walking, etc., and I see its healthy appeal.  New birding possibilities became apparent on day one when my grandson pointed out the window at the sunset “bird show”.  We were looking down from the 25th floor at a feeding flock of Ring-billed Gulls soaring far below.

img_8942

House Sparrow (female), Passer domesticus

House Sparrows and Feral Pigeons are the low-hanging fruit in any city but if you look harder and are fortunate to be in a metropolis which has developed some green spaces, you will be rewarded.  The urban birds, residents and migrators, are seeking out and concentrated in those same green oases.  My first challenge was getting used to the loud traffic noise, sirens, screaming children and the general din of the city drowning out the birds.  Hustling pedestrians have little regard for a birder sneaking up on a rarity.  Despite it all I saw some good birds.

img_9069

Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

There were some pleasant surprises.  Cold, frosty morning–not a problem, there’s a Starbucks across the street.  Hungry–just visit the Panera Bread around the corner.  Right foot acting up–stop by the local CVS for Advil.  Want to check out another site–just hop on the subway for $2.25 and surface across town in just minutes.

img_8959

Common Yellowthroat (female), Geothlypis trichas

Do you remember the “Big Dig”?  This was the largest and most costly highway project in our country’s history.  In the 1950’s the Boston developers built the “highway in the skies”, elevating the central artery through the heart of the city darkening the stores and streets below.  By the 1980’s planners sought to correct this by burying several miles of Interstate 93.  Construction woes persisted from 1991 through 2007 plagued by cost overruns, leaks, poor design, poor materials, criminal arrests, etc.  Tax payers were left holding the bag for a project which initially was supposed to cost $2.8 billion but ended up at $14.6 billion.

Greenway

The Rose Kennedy Greenway

But there was and is light at the end of this tunnel.  What to do with the vacated space left by the buried highway was the question of the day.  It could have been developed commercially but greener heads prevailed and today there is an amazing linear park curving through the heart of Boston from Chinatown to the North End.  This “Rose Kennedy Greenway” was my first stop for several mornings of great urban birding.

img_2595

This park has had several years to mature and is a creative mixture of trees, lower shrubs and ground cover traversed by winding gravel paths.  They’ve held the lawns and concrete portions to a minimum and have been rewarded with a vote of approval from the birds. During two morning visits I saw 13 species including a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat.  The e-Bird Hot Spot indicates 102 species have been seen there.

img_9126

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Christopher Columbus Park is near the northern end of the Greenway and perfectly suited for a lunch break at American Joe’s waterfront restaurant.  Near the entrance I saw a Red-tailed Hawk in an evergreen, also breaking for lunch with small feathers still hanging from its claws and beak.  While sampling some delicious clam chowder and watching a Ring-billed Gull perched just outside my window, I saw a Peregrine Falcon shoot by in pursuit of a Feral Pigeon–it doesn’t get any better than this.

img_9106

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

The staid, historic and central green space in Boston is the large Common and adjacent Public Gardens occupying 74 acres near the western edge of “Old Boston”.  The Common has the traditional landscape of urban parks with crisscrossing paths, hills, statues, and beautiful old trees.  Despite the obvious beauty, (see the opening photo in the post), the lack of understudy plantings makes the birding there somewhat meagre, at least during my visits.  The Public Gardens is a gorgeous manicured green space with a large central pond, walking bridge, swan boats, and the famous and growing family of mallards, the stars of the classic children’s book, “Make Way For Ducklings”, by Robert McCloskey.  Other birds, however, were scarce, at least in November.

Post Office Square

Post Office Square

Post Office Square, aka Norman B. Leventhal Park, is a small 1.7 acre green oasis in the heart of the financial district surrounded by towering buildings, old and new.  This space does have low bushes and grasses and attracted a large flock of foraging White-throated Sparrows, I suspect newly arrived from the north.  e-Bird Hot Spot reports 92 species have been seen in this small, charming space.

img_9218

White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Mount Auburn Cemetery, though not actually within Boston, has to be included on any birders description of local sites.  It is located near the border of Watertown and Cambridge just north of Boston.  Take the Red Line to Harvard Square and Bus 71 or 73 to the cemetery and you will experience a birding and landscaping treat.  Countless winding roads and paths over hills and between tombstones create a reverential atmosphere. The autumn beauty is difficult to capture with words.  I published an earlier post just about this site on February 4, 2015.  My location life list at Mt. Auburn is 36 species but e-Bird Hot Spot reports 225 species seen over the years.  I always end my walk through the cemetery with a short visit to our family plot where both my parents are interred.  Mount Auburn will obviously remain a birding and personal destination for me, hopefully for years to come.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery

Birding Bombay Hook Delaware

img_8589

 

I had to get out of the wind.  The blue sky and fleecy clouds belied the penetrating chill from the 30 mile per hour late October wind gusting from the north down Delaware Bay and across the vast wetlands.  The birds were hunkered down, barely visible in my wind battered scope, and I needed some relief as well.  The Parson Point trailhead looked inviting, winding through a sheltered deciduous woods.  The only sound there was the wind rustling the high canopy, the crunching of dry leaves underfoot, and the distant call of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

The last thing I expected to see was an old crumbling concrete structure just off the trail.  A worn sign indicated it was the ruins of the foundation for a Army Air Force World War II radio and observation tower.  In the midst of an innocent birding trip I was reminded again of that existential struggle waged by an earlier generation worldwide, and that today’s relative peace and freedom has been bought with a price.

img_2466

Ruins of WWII tower; click on any photo to zoom

Bombay Hook is a 16,251 acre National Wildlife Refuge established in 1934 along the western shore of Delaware Bay.  The name comes from the Dutch “Bompies Hoeck” meaning little tree point.  The Dutch colonial settlers harvested salt hay from the marsh and found sustenance from plentiful muskrat, water fowl, fish, oysters, and crabs.  The Allee House is a large 18th century home in the preserve, currently closed and awaiting restoration.  The attraction for me, however, is the birding, scenery, and photography.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus griseus

The refuge is a popular breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover location along the Atlantic Flyway.  Meandering tidal rivers crisscross the marsh where low grasses seemingly stretch to the horizon.  In the slightly higher areas one finds small hummocks filled with blackbirds, perching herons, and the occasional kingfisher.  Larger wooded areas contain trails leading to several observation towers which allow an expansive view of the entire preserve.

img_8778

Water control dikes have been built creating three large pools.  Gravel access roads on the dikes wind their way around these pools giving both close and distant views of the wildlife.  If you are lucky you’ll catch some shorebirds feeding on the near mudflats in perfect light.  But more often it seems, you’ll be using your scope and telephoto lens to see the mixed flocks on the opposite shore, often back-lit in the afternoon sun.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

I bird Bombay Hook both from the car and on foot.  By car I make frequent stops shooting through the open windows, and occasionally exit to set up the scope in the lee of the car or to catch a flyover of a Bald Eagle, harrier, or flock of shorebirds heading from the marsh to the pools’ mudflats.  The cold, wind, and/or mosquitoes favor birding from the car, but don’t forget to sample the wooded trails and an opportunity to observe the Passerines.  I especially recommend the trail to the Shearness Pool Tower from which you can see the vast panoramic expanse of the preserve.

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

View east from Shearness Pool Tower

Memorable trips to BH for me include a wintertime visit and the racket and spectacle of thousands of Snow Geese rising out of the marsh at dusk, the variety of wintering waterfowl, and my first sighting of Horned Larks in the snowy fields near the refuge entrance.  I’ve seen large flocks of American Avocets there and a huge flock of mixed shorebirds rising as one, spooked by an approaching Northern Harrier.  Even when the birds are sparse the vistas surround and reward you.  Visit in any season but pack some fly dope in the warmer weather.  Bombay Hook NWR easily makes my list of top ten birding sites.