Monthly Archives: February 2015

Meet the gravity-defying nuthatches


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A White-breasted Nuthatch perches at the end of a branch.

The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance as they search for food in the nooks and crannies in tree trunks and branches.

The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A White-breasted Nuthatch plucks a sunflower seed from a feeder.

Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the rivalry always ongoing between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                A Red-breasted Nuthatch visits a feeder for peanuts.

The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

These displays are usually brief, unless they are directed toward another white-breasted nuthatch. A male-female pair of these nuthatches can peaceably visit a feeding area at the same time. Two male nuthatches — or two female nuthatches for that matter — show little toleration for each other. Their little dances of defiance are in these cases demonstrated for each other. Eventually, one nuthatch will give way, but these are stubborn birds, much more set in their ways than chickadees and titmice.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            Red-breasted Nuthatches are occasional winter feeder visitors in Northeast Tennessee.

In our region, the stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Brown-headed Nuthatch seeks out a sunflower seed from a feeder.

Both of these nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.

The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.


A painting of Red-breasted Nuthatches by early naturalist John James Audubon.

This small nuthatch is not at all common in the region, but there are some records. I’ve had much better luck finding the brown-headed nuthatch during visits to coastal South Carolina or suburban Atlanta in Georgia. In these southern locations, it can be a quite common bird.

These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.

I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.

On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds include beautiful nuthatch, velvet-fronted nuthatch, sulphur-billed nuthatch, chestnut-bellied nuthatch, snowy-browed nuthatch and chestnut-vented nuthatch.
These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because gravity doesn’t seem much of a factor in their daily lives. They are content to walk headfirst down a tree trunk or probe the underside of a large branch. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                A White-breasted Nuthatch recovers after striking a window.


Spruce comes crashing down during recent storm

I felt really bad for the birds when one of the larger blue spruce trees in the yard came crashing to the ground on Thursday, Feb. 12. At the same time, I felt fortunate that the tree collapsed while I was at work, mainly because it came to rest at a location where I usually park my automobile.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                        The collapse of this blue spruce has left some of the local birds feeling somewhat homeless.

The large tree, which still retained a dense growth of stiff, prickly needles on the upper third of its branches, snapped right at ground level. With the horizontal shelter normally provided by the tree suddenly gone vertical, many of the birds looked dazed and confused in the aftermath. In particular, some of the Carolina Chickadees looked somewhat bewildered and baffled. A couple of Pine Siskins looked as if they were confused by the situation.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                This Carolina Chickadee, perched in the branches of the fallen blue spruce, looked somewhat confused in the immediate aftermath of the large tree’s collapse.

Most of the birds have adjusted. In fact, they have found the branches of the fallen tree just as capable of offering shelter from the elements and hiding places from potential predators.

The blue spruce was one of five planted by my late father and my late grandfather more than 30 years ago. Two of those five trees are still standing, but two others had already fallen several years ago during storms.

The gusts of wind on Feb. 12 proved too much for the tree. I don’t think blue spruce are particularly suited to life here in northeast Tennessee. They seem more vulnerable to pests and disease than many other conifers. At one time, my father planted some on his Christmas tree farm back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Most people didn’t like the sharp, spiky needles of a blue spruce, although the blue-green coloration often brought admiration from observers.

Until they grew more than 12 feet tall, my grandfather used to decorate the two spruces on each side of his home. He would string multi-colored strands of Christmas lights through the branches of the trees every holiday season.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  Although located next to the fallen tree, this suet feeder continued to attract birds even after the tree collapsed on Thursday, Feb. 12.

When the trees grew too big to decorate, the birds became the chief beneficiaries. I positioned many of my feeders in the lower branches of several of the remaining spruces. From nuthatches and woodpeckers to chickadees and titmice, a variety of birds liked to congregate within the tree’s branches. A host of other birds, including Eastern Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows liked to feed on the ground beneath the tall trees.

In the summer, birds such as Song Sparrows and Northern Cardinals concealed their nests in the thick boughs of some of these blue spruces.

I hate to lose a good tree. With these spruces, there are many memories tied to them. I’ll get over the loss, and I hope that, once the shock wears off, so will the birds.

After all, if your home came crashing down without warning, you might be a little perplexed, too.


The Great Backyard Bird Count continues through Monday, Feb. 16. For more information, visit

I’ve been counting since Friday, Feb. 13, when this year’s GBBC kicked off. I’ll be sharing more about my participation in upcoming posts.

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend me on Facebook at I’m always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                               This whimsical feeder is attached to one of the blue spruce trees still standing. Five of these trees were planted about 40 years ago, but only two of them now remain standing. They’ve been magnets for a variety of birds through the years. In this photo, a Red-breasted Nuthatch enjoys some peanuts.


Pine siskins abundant throughout region this winter


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                        An American Goldfinch, left, and Pine Siskin, right, share space on a feeder.

Winters, despite the depressed variety of bird species, can bring excitement when flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area expand their range into the region.

Evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls and red crossbills represent a few of these northern finches that occasionally stage massive migratory movements, or irruptions, into areas far outside their typical ranges.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Pine Siskins visit a feeder on a snowy day.

The 2014-15 winter season is shaping up as a notable invasive year for pine siskins, another species of the so-called Northern finches. This small finch is related to and similar in appearance to the American goldfinch.

Bristol birder Richard Lewis reported on bristol-birds, an online forum for sharing area bird sightings, that he observed a large flock of more than 100 pine siskins along Caverns Road in Sullivan County about a half mile west of Bristol Caverns. Ron Carrico counted 58 Pine Siskins coming to his feeders on Jan. 23 at his home in Bristol, Tennessee.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    Large flocks of Pine Siskins are being reported throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia this winter season.

They’re not the only people in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia reporting large numbers of pine siskins this winter. Siskins have been visiting my feeders since this past October, but their numbers began to increase in December. Since then, a flock of about 70 birds, accompanied by lesser numbers of American goldfinches, has become daily visitors at the feeders, enjoying mostly sunflower and nyjer thistle seeds.

Siskins are not the only bird to stage irruptions. In addition to pine siskin, the website identifies pine grosbeak, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, purple finch, common redpoll and evening grosbeak as the birds typically associated with these winter incursions. The website also notes that finches are not the only birds known for these periodic irruptions. Other non-finch species — red-breasted nuthatch, Clark’s nutcracker, bohemian waxwing, black-capped chickadee and varied thrush — undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the pine siskin and the red crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in the region.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Pine Siskins usually show some bright yellow feathers in their wings and tails.

These irruptions are not usually motived by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds, such as pine siskins, will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                     Pine Siskins can become frequent feeder visitors during an irruptive winter season.

The pine siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the black-capped siskin, hooded siskin, red siskin, black siskin, Antillean siskin and Andean siskin.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       A Pine Siskin perched atop a Blue Spruce surveys its surroundings.

Siskins often associate with American goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.


Photo by Jean Potter                    Pine Siskins feed on thistle seeds contained in a special sock feeder.

Some people quickly discover that a large flock of pine siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.

In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.

Annual Great Backyard Bird Count gives everyone a chance to contribute to ‘citizen science’

Organizers are inviting citizen scientists around the world to give Mother Nature a valentine this year and show how much they care about birds by counting them for the yearly Great Backyard Bird Count.


Photo by Jean Potter                                      Pine Siskins flock to a sock filled with thistle seed. These finches, prone to irruptions every few years, could be quite common during this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

The 18th annual count is taking place Feb.13-16. Anyone in the world can count birds at any location for at least 15 minutes on one or more days during this four-day count and enter their sightings at The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track changes in bird populations on a massive scale. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.

Two years ago, the GBBC shattered records after going global for the first time, thanks to integration with the eBird online checklist program launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab and Audubon. Participants reported their bird sightings from all seven continents, including 111 countries and independent territories. Participants came from a range of far-flung locations from from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. More than 34.5 million birds and 3,610 species were recorded, thereby documenting nearly one-third of the world’s total bird species in just four days.

Last year, bird watchers fell in love with the magnificent snowy owl when these impressive birds were reported in unprecedented numbers across southeastern Canada, the Great Lakes states, the Northeast, and along the Atlantic Coast. Organizers anticipate snowy owls will show up in higher numbers during this year’s GBBC, too.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Snowy Owl, held in captivity after suffering injuries that left it unreleasable, now educates people about the lives of birds of prey.

“It’s called an ‘echo flight,’” explained Marshall Iliff, eBird Project Leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a press release promoting the GBBC. “After a huge irruption like we had last winter, the following year often yields higher-than-usual numbers as well. The abundance of lemmings that produced last year’s Snowy Owl irruption likely continued or emerged in new areas of eastern Canada, more owls may have stayed east after last year’s irruption, and some of last year’s birds that came south are returning.”

Owls are not the only birds that will motivate birding enthusiasts to get into the field this February.

“This may also be a big year for finches,” noted Audubon Chief Scientist Gary Langham. “GBBC participants in North America should be on the lookout for larger numbers of Pine Siskins and redpolls. These birds also push farther south when pine cone seed crops fail in the far north of Canada.”

Bird watchers from 135 countries participated in the 2014 count, documenting nearly 4,300 species on more than 144,000 bird checklists – that’s about 43 percent of all the bird species in the world! In addition to the U.S. and Canada, India, Australia, and Mexico led the way with the greatest number of checklists submitted.

“We especially want to encourage people to share their love of birds and bird watching with someone new this year,” says Dick Cannings at Bird Studies Canada. “Take your sweetheart, a child, a neighbor, or a coworker with you while you count birds for the GBBC. Share your passion and you may fledge a brand new bird watcher!”


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service      The popular photography contest will also be open to Great Backyard Bird Count participants again this year. From common birds, such as this Downy Woodpecker, to more exotic ones such as Snowy Owls, photographers can focus their cameras on a variety of birds.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with nature and show some love for the birds this Valentine”s Day. Participation is free and easy. To learn more about how to join the count, download instructions, a slide show, web buttons and other materials, visit While you’re there, get inspired by viewing the winning photos from the 2014 GBBC photo contest.

I’ve taken part in the GBBC for the past 18 years. It’s easy to do. If you have never participated in the GBBC or any other Cornell Lab citizen-science project, you’ll need to create a new account. If you already created an account for last year’s GBBC, or if you’re already registered with eBird or another Cornell Lab citizen-science project, you can use your existing login information.

On any or all of the days of the GBBC, count birds for at least 15 minutes, although you can count for longer than that if you wish. Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day, for each new location, or for the same location if you counted at a different time of day. Estimate the number of individuals of each species you saw during your count period.


Photo by Byron Tucker                                                                  A Red-tailed Hawk visits a backyard in an Atlanta suburb earlier this month. GBBC participants can count the birds in their own yards or visit their favorite birding locations to look for everything from raptors and sparrows to finches and waterfowl.

Enter your results on the GBBC website by clicking “Submit Observations” on the home page. Or download the free GBBC BirdLog app to enter data on a mobile device. If you already participate in the eBird citizen-science project, please use eBird to submit your sightings during the GBBC. Your checklists will count toward the GBBC.

To learn more, again simply visit I’m optimistic you’ll join me this year in taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email