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Nuthatches are regulars at the feeders

A white-breasted nuthatch takes suet from a feeder. Note the inverted pose they regularly use. (Photo by Larry Weber)

It is always interesting and delightful when a rare bird shows up in the region, especially in the winter. So when I received word of an ivory gull in Canal Park, I joined many other birders and nature watchers to observe this bird so far from its normal range.

Occupying a part of North America that most of us do not see, the ivory gull is of the Arctic Ocean. Not only do they breed in those northern latitudes, but they winter there, too. Traveling among the ice flows, the gulls feed on debris left by seals and polar bears. Wandering from this northern home, this juvenile gull arrived here. It was easy to see and approach, and highly photogenic.

As gulls go, this one was about middle-sized but much smaller than the herring gulls that were also at Canal Park. Rare finds of some sort show up nearly every year in the Northland, but usually they are not as easy to find as this ivory gull and not as well-documented. And though they add much to see and observe in our cold season, they are not the typical birdwatching for Northlanders who winter here.

We do Christmas Bird Counts as a way of recording what birds are here with us in late December. And by the time we get to January, most have settled down to stay here. During the last couple of weeks, I have noted an abundance of crows and ravens during my walks. These opportunists will remain and thrive for the winter. In the cold darkness, I've heard the calls of a couple of resident owls, too, the great horned and the barred. While driving, I've also seen some other raptors of note, bald eagles and rough-legged hawks. Non-native starlings and rock pigeons seem to be doing fine in the winter as well. But for many of us, the birds that we'll see on a daily basis are seen in or near our yards.

Like many in the region, I maintain birdfeeders near the house. Maybe the best way to get familiar with our avifauna is to sit back on winter days and watch the action of these birds at the feeders. I began feeding in early October and now, three and a half months later, the feeder continues to be visited each day. Early in the feeding time, a variety of migrants came by that have gone to the south, but they settled down to the regulars that appear now nearly every day. I now expect each day to see resident black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and woodpeckers along with a flock of redpolls. (Goldfinches that were present with the redpolls until the first of the year have moved on.) With the exception of the redpolls, all are here not just in winter, but are permanent residents for the whole year.

Watching regulars at the feeder makes it sound like this activity is repetitive and static. But I've found quite the opposite. Within these species, their activity and numbers will vary. I've observed that fewer birds make use of the feeders on mild days, but with the return of snow and cold, so do the birds return. The redpoll flock of about 100 now grew from about five at the time of the winter solstice. Thistle seed seems to keep them occupied.

Woodpeckers — downy, hairy and red-bellied — come to the suet each day. I have yet to see the local pileated woodpeckers at the feeder, but they are in the yard each day. Black-capped chickadees, so common and easy to see, can be hard to count, maybe 10 here each day. And there is the consistent pair of nuthatches.

Nuthatches are permanent residents, but seen much more in winter than summer. The Northland is home to two species: the red-breasted, a member of the coniferous community and the white breasted, living in the deciduous forests. I get both at the feeders, but white-breasted nuthatches this winter have been the usual ones. At 6 inches long, they are small birds, but larger than the chickadees and redpolls. Arriving early each day, I often hear their "yank-yank" calls at dawn. They are quick to take and break open sunflower seeds for breakfast. (The name "nuthatch" refers to their hacking or breaking of the seeds and nuts for food.) And I see that they often go to the suet for fat in their cold-weather diet.

But it is their skill of descending tree trunks that often causes us to take a closer look. While woodpeckers go up trees by clinging to the bark, the nuthatches go down headfirst. Labeled as "upside down birds" by some, they use this approach to locate insects in the bark, or in winter, any seeds there.

While woodpeckers use their tail as a prop to hold themselves vertical, nuthatches stagger their feet to keep themselves in this unusual pose. They'll remain with us throughout the season and whether on the feeders or on the tree trunks, the white-breasted nuthatches continue to be interesting to watch, even if they are not a rare bird.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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