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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Nesting in progress: Start vs Finish

Yesterday, while passing by the first dead tree east of Elvis's Chinese Empress, it was impossible to ignore the incessant cries of this bird.
In a just a few moments it became obvious there was a nest in the tree and more than one bird involved. The initial assumption was that the noisy bird was a fledgling that had just recently learned to fly, had not yet figured out how to find its own food and was crying for its parents to bring it food. However further research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology brought a number of surprises to light.

First of all juvenile Red-Breasted Nuthatches (RBN), unlike adults, have yellow on their beaks. 
So this loud little bird is an adult not a young nestling who has just learned to fly. Another surprise was to see this busy little bird carry wood chips out of the nest in a manner very similar to a Pileated Woodpecker or a Flicker. In this video the wood chips are rather small and towards the beginning.

Nest Building Video 

Again the first assumption, e.g. that this bird had taken over a nesting hole created by a Downy Woodpecker, was wrong. Not only does Cornell state that these birds excavate their own nests but in addition they place resin around the nesting hole to deter other birds from entering their nest.

Since the Nuthatch feeds on small creatures that it finds in the nooks, crannies and crevices of the tree it needs the strength to go after the food from any direction. If you glance back at the first photo and take a look at the feet of the RBN you will notice not only are they huge for the body size but the single rearward facing claw is very large. This allows the bird to easily perch at any angle.

In addition RBNs need the ability to watch for danger and look into the dark crevices at virtually the same time without loosing their balance. Their extremely short necks allow them to shift their direction of focus without a great change in the distribution of their body weight. This along with their speed makes it seem like they can almost look in two directions at once. (Technically, with eyes on both sides of their heads they actually can look in two directions at once.)

So if you happen to stop by the Arboretum and walk towards Foster Island watch for the active little RBNs and their nest. 

They can be rather hard to see if you are not watching closely, for example did you miss the bird in the previous photo?

On the other hand if you listen for the sound of the Nuthatch you are far more likely to find the source of the call. My best guess at this point is that the RBN was singing out to proclaim its territory. Here is a prime example:

So hopefully this pair of RBNs is just starting the nesting process. It will be wonderful to watch and see if they produce a young bird with yellow on the underside of its beak.

5/15/13 Update  

Ellen's comment below inspired me to listen to the RBN calls or Cornell. My best guess is that the call in the previous video is a territorial call. If you would like to check out the calls for yourself here is the link:

Update from Bill Anderson:

Good shots.  The red-breasted nuthatch is one of my favorite little bitty birds.   The ones at my feeder are very picky and toss away sunflower seeds like frisbees.  The prefer peanuts and hide them in the crevices of the rough bark of my Doug firs.


Thank you Bill for the very lively and vivid description.


I hope to run into you somewhere near Union Bay while observing the beauty and wonder of nature. If you need encouragement to get out and about take a look at the Odds and Edds for a few highlights from the last week.

Larry Hubbell

Odds and Ends:

On my way back from the Nuthatch nest, a Downy Woodpecker stopped to inspect holes in the dead tree just to the west of the Chinese Empress. (By the way the folks at the Arboretum have completed the modifications to the Empress just as described in this earlier post about Danger in the Park.)
Note the freshly-cut, wood glow inside the lower hole which makes one think this is a fresh nesting spot that could bear watching closer.

However the Downy has a different point of view.

Earlier this week I saw my first Pied-Billed Grebe nest (with an egg exposed) and watched two Pileated Woodpeckers mating. I couldn't get a close enough to determine if the male was Elvis, but in any case it is good to see Pileated Woodpeckers around the Arboretum area.

The Broadmoor eagles continue to be very protective and attentive to their egg(s). As the sun was setting last night the parent on the nest had its mouth open and its tongue hanging out and the temperature hasn't even reached 80 degrees yet. Parenting can be hard work.

I also got photos of a Bald Eagle sitting above the Barred Owl nest in Interlaken Park this week. 
Neighbors had reported the eagles were harassing the owls. However the next night I saw one of the Barred Owls and heard both of them calling, so hopefully their nesting was not disturbed too much. (By the way: To the woman who was taking photos at the same time I was if you send me an email describing what you lost on the trail I will tell you where to find them.)

The Union Bay area is full of nests and lots of potential for the future. 


  1. Another great post, Larry! I so much enjoy these up-close-and-personal bird stories.


    1. Thank you. I really liked your Natural Presence post (click the link above to see it) on chickadees, particularly the artwork at the end.

  2. In the video of the RBN singing, is it the melodious high pitched song, or is it the "beep beep beep" more harsh and regular song? Thanks, Larry!

    1. The RBN is the beep, beep, beep. I added an update near the video link above that takes you to Cornell where they have 3 or 4 different RBN calls. You might find it interesting to to compare the calls. The call on the video could be a territorial call (I hope) or maybe a distress call. Good luck on the finding your earbuds.