The last irruption happened three years ago. In October 2013, one month before I became a birdwatcher, I noticed a sudden increase of bird activity around my backyard deck. I briefly saw an odd Black-capped Chickadee in the berry-laden flowering dogwood. Thinking about it, I decided it wasn’t a chickadee, but something else.
The following month, while flipping through multiple field guides, I ID’d it. Red-breasted Nuthatch. I knew it wasn’t a chickadee!
Even though I saw one before I started calling myself a birder, I counted it as a life bird. (Historically speaking, as my logic had it those three years ago. I wouldn’t do such thing these days.) I was only just starting to teach myself about birds that winter. I concentrated on what appeared in front of me as I backyard birdwatched. I forgot about the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Not one visited my feeders.
I learned about the significance of my sighting half a year later when I started socializing with other birders. I couldn’t believe I barely missed such a good bird.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis, RBNU)) is an easy bird to ID. There is nothing like it in North America. A little smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Red-breasted has a rusty belly, light gray back, white face, black cap, and thick black eye stripes. Their yanks are more nasal and lighter in pitch – near toy-like – than the White-breasted’s.
To further compare the two species, the White-breasted is a common year-round resident in most of the United States and roughly half of Mexico. And they like deciduous forests. Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer to reside in higher-altitude mature boreal forests, foraging for insects and arthropods in summer and for conifer seeds in winter. During irruptive periods, they will appear in forests with deciduous trees as well.
Their distribution is complex. It varies per year, per the will of the individual. They typically live all year round in the southern half of Canada, and the northernmost and western portions of the US (also including the southeast corner of Alaska and a sliver in the southeast of the mainland). With the exception of those that live in Alaska and Northern Canada, most Red-breasted Nuthatches overwinter where they breed. But a large shortage of food causes an exodus. According to Birds of North American, these irruptions “occur every 2–4 yr when conifer cone production on breeding grounds is poor,” and they move as “far south as the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the desert washes of northern Mexico,” moving as early as July. How many irrupt each year versus the ones that stay is difficult to say, as is the number of those that eventually return their breeding grounds. Banding and tracking these birds have yet to take place.
As for New York, according to Cornell’s range map, they breed everywhere but won’t go farther south than Dutchess County. They absolutely refuse to set foot in Westchester, New York City, and Long Island unless an irruptions occurs. However, I once heard from a senior fellow birdwatcher – a Long Island resident – that only Red-breasted Nuthatches resided in Long Island several decades ago. Her daughter recalls that they were still more common than White-breasteds fifteen years ago. They would breed in pitch pines and white pines. In fact, they bred Long Island as far back as 1923 and beyond, and were “fairly common” in 1918. Gradually, until 2006-2007, they were replaced by White-breasted Nuthatches. They seem to mostly appear during irruptive periods. As to the history of the bird in Westchester County, “Red-breasted Nuthatches were observed all summer at Mamaroneck.”
It has occurred to me that I could travel to get one. (I did once, when I went on an SMRA trip to Dutchess County this past summer. Still didn’t see one. Still bitter.) However, I am content to spend most of my birdwatching time in Westchester, even three years later. I lack the drive to chase birds on my own. If I don’t see it, then I don’t see it. So, if I were to finally have my second Red-breasted Nuthatch, it would be in this county.
Naturally, I set myself up for disappointment each winter. It happened every time I walked with a group and someone said there could be a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the area. I would stay behind to stare at every clump of conifers. Will they give birth to one this time?
2016. They are here again.
Late this August, I birded in Rockefeller State Park with a couple friends at the time – Anne and Debbie, as you would know them from previous posts. We were trying to catch a White-eyed Vireo for Debbie. Another birder we came across said he had heard a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches in a certain part of the preserve. Naturally, I lit up. As always, I thought, This is the moment. And Debbie needed one to her life list. I was ready to run over, but we had to observe a nice number of warblers from a magic tree (best look at a non-breeding Chestunut-sided Warbler yet!) and get that White-eyed Vireo (Debbie didn’t get it in the end). An hour later, we arrived at the spot. Not a Red-breasted Nuthatch to be heard. (But we got warblers.)
After that day, I repeatedly heard this was a good year for their irruption. Birders upstate reported low conifer seed yield. I remained patient.
A little over a week later, I heard an unfamiliar song from my backyard. I went outside to listen and find the bird. But the song must have stopped on my way out.
I was about to go back inside when I heard three yanks. Not from a White-breasted Nuthatch – from a Red-breasted Nuthatch. I turned to follow the sound and saw the nuthatch’s silhouette in a cedar tree twenty feet away from me. I scrambled to get my binoculars on it. It had flown away.
I decided this was a time to try out playback. I dashed to grab my iPod. My finger stabbed the screen to get to the sound clips. I played the recording once and looked around. I expected to see the nuthatch fly in from the same direction. The recording finished. No movement. I thought it was gone for good. Just by chance, my head suddenly craned up and left. The very nuthatch was perched on the ash tree, fewer than five feet away from my face. As soon as it saw that I spotted it, it flew away again, this time to the row of white pines next to my house.
I crept closer to the pines, stopping where the long branches ended. I played the recording. Immediately, the nuthatch landed on the branch right in front of me. It lingered for a few seconds. Enough time to once more confront the supposed fellow nuthatch it heard, only to find it wasn’t hearing one of its kind, but a facade – again. Enough time to perhaps allow me the best look I could ever get of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was smaller than I thought, its breast a beautiful deep rust, its plumage crisp, its shiny black eyes aware and knowing.
It flew away again.
So help me, I could have left it at that. But I played the recording again – several times. The nuthatch darted around the pines, foraging for food, and then it disappeared for good. It wouldn’t allow itself to be fooled a third time.
I’m still hearing and seeing Red-breasted Nuthatches around Westchester. Brinton Brook. Muscoot Farm. Rockefeller State Park. As Cornell’s All About Bird’s introductory blurb says, they are an “intense bundle of energy at your feeder.” I’m counting on that this coming winter.
Deed, R. F. (1953, October). Regional Reports. The Kingbird, 3(3), 75-77. Retrieved from http://nybirds.org/KB_IssuesArchive/y1953v3n3.pdf
Feustel, K. (2007, December). Early arrival of Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) in southeastern New York during summer 2007. The Kingbird, 57(4), 295-297. Retrieved from http://nybirds.org/KB_IssuesArchive/y2007v57n4.pdf
Ghalambor, Cameron K. and Thomas E. Martin. (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/rebnut DOI: 10.2173/bna.459
EDITED 9/15/2016: Regarding historical distribution in Long Island and Westchester County.