Red-breasted Nuthatches are Coming!
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is not a species I’ve seen on the Gulf Coast in my three years of birding but in the last week, I’ve seen four in Mississippi and Alabama and I’ve seen reports rolling in on my eBird alerts report for Louisiana, daily.
This species is irruptive on the Gulf Coast and is usually only seen during large, irregularly spaced annual migration events. Just out of curiosity, I checked eBird for sightings in Louisiana over the last five years and found the last big irruption year for Red-breasted Nuthatches was 2012-2013 with an impressive 1,660 birds counted between Sept 2012 – May 2013. Compare that to the total for the same time period the next year: 41.
I think this may be another irruption year because our total for fall 2016 is already 494 and we’re not even through October yet! So, this fall and winter, keep your ears and eyes peeled for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, because it may be a while before we see them again.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are very easy to locate by ear and have a distinctive call which is a loud nasal “yank-yank-yank” (which you can hear here) that reminds me of the sound of a toy baby doll. This sound is not to be confused with the dog-squeaky-toy sound from our Brown-headed Nuthatch, which is plentiful year round in any area with heavy pine trees.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are usually found defying gravity by circling tree limbs and trunks. They are apparently fairly common feeder visitors as I’ve seen them on feeders in Maine as well as at my mom’s house in Picayune, MS last weekend. These small birds have a slate gray back and a bold black and white striped head. The chest and belly are a rich rusty color. Similar species can be the Brown-headed Nuthatch which lacks black and white stripes on the head and the rusty underparts as well as the very common Carolina Chickadee which has a similar facial pattern, but is much smaller and would only be confused during quick glances.