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.
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.
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.
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–
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.
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.
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.”