Monday, April 19, 2010

Brown-headed Nuthatch

April 8th was to prove to be the maddest day of the year so far! With staff on holiday, I was manning the store more or less alone today, but for the welcome help of my trusty volunteer, Linda. So it really was not a good day to get one of THOSE text messages! It was an average start to what looked like being an average day. Then Michael O'Brien blew us all off the park with the discovery of Cape May's second ever Brown-headed Nuthatch! Miraculously for me, it was but two minutes away by car and I actually arrived just in time to have Michael point it out to me as an almost tailess silhouette flew out of the pines and away across the beach! Waahhh!!!! Good job it wasn't a life bird for me was about all I could say - but would I really be happy counting it?

I remember reading Bill Oddie's writings on birds and birding years ago, in which he stated that, when you see a new bird, you can only count it if you can answer two questions: "How do I know it is one?" and "Would I know it if I saw it again?" Well actually, I don't think this works, because anyone can answer the questions, but it depends on whether you're happy with the answers!! How do I know it is one? Because Michael O'Brien said so! Would I know it if I saw it again? It'll be an almost tailless silhouette flying off across a beach - easy!!! Clearly I was at a moral crossroads; Michael decided that the bird might continue eastward as he had followed it through the pines along the back of the dunes, heading in that direction. He drove off to the state park, while I crossed onto the beach and walked back westward. Five minutes later, I refound the nuthatch, this time sharing a tree with a Red-breasted Nuthatch. The view was brief, but I had clearly seen the pale 'thumb mark' on the back of the nape and also noted that, unlike the Red-breasted Nuthatch, the Brown-headed didn't have a white eyeline.

Soon, local birders were converging - but the bird disappeared again! I had to get back to work and it was another hour or so before the bird put in another appearance and it continued to be elusive all day. The next day, things were even worse, as the weather was dull and rainy and the bird wasn't seen at all - and Megan still needed it! Luckily, the Saturday saw a return to better weather and we both got great views - and photo opportunities!

As if a cherry was needed on top of the icing on this excellent piece of cake, I found myself dashing back out from the store late morning when news came out of not one but two magnificent Swallow-tailed Kites which appeared right over the beach in front of nuthatch seekers! By the time I got there, the birds were well out over Delaware Bay, but still easily identifiable with their wonderful graceful flight.

What a day!!

Brown-headed Nuthatch at Cape May Point, April 10th 2010. Though this species breeds within sight of Cape May Point, within walking distance of the ferry terminal on the Delaware side of the bay, the 16 or so miles between the two points is just too much for this normally very sedentary species to take on. This is only the second record of this species from Cape May County; the first was found by Richard Crossley in exactly the same location on July 23rd 2004 and stayed until the following day.

A pine nut is extracted from a cone - the species' favourite food. Odd records of wanderers such as this probably involve first-year males seeking out a new territory for the first time. Where they go when they leave us is anyone's guess...

This picture shows the pale 'thumb mark' on the nape, similar to that found in Great Tits.

This was a very active bird that never really gave great photo opportunities, but I was pleased with what I managed to scrape together!

Just to show the differences, here's a Red-breasted Nuthatch I photographed at the Villas Wildlife Management Area a couple of years ago. The differences in head pattern between the two species are pretty obvious!