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By Peter Vankevich
Starting in the early fall and into the early spring, on Ocracoke you may hear a sound reminiscent of a tin horn (yank, yank) coming from a tree, usually a long-leaf pine.
Making the noise could very well be Red-breasted Nuthatches–small, agile birds that are best viewed with binoculars. As their Latin name (Sitta canadensis) implies, Red-breasted Nuthatches are birds of the north, nesting in the coniferous and boreal forests from the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia to the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.
Their range also extends southward into the mountains of the American Southwest and the southern Appalachians in the East, which includes western North Carolina where they are common in elevations at 4,500 feet and above and less so down to 3,000 feet.
When there is a poor crop of conifer seeds in their breeding grounds, these nuthatches will migrate in large numbers farther south than their typical wintering range. These are known as “irruptive years,” and that is when they may very well appear on Ocracoke.
The Christmas Bird Count that took place on Ocracoke on Dec. 31, 2016, suggested that this was one such year as 46 individual birds were counted, a record high number for this local count that began in 1982.The following year only one was tallied. The most recent count on Dec. 31 reported seven individuals.
The adult male Nuthatch plumage is black at its top which includes the forehead, crown and nape. A black eye stripe is bordered by a white superciliary one above it. The back is bluish-gray and underparts are a rufous-cinnamon color from which the bird gets its name.
An adult female is similar, but the top of its head is dark gray-blue, not black, and the eye stripe is narrower and duller and the underparts are paler. Juveniles are similar to adults but their markings are duller.
Worldwide, there are 28 nuthatch recognized species belonging to the family Sittidae.
In North America, there are four nuthatch species and three of them can be found in North Carolina. In addition to our feature is the slightly smaller Brown-headed Nuthatch, that can be found year-round, primarily in mature, open, long-leaf pine stands of the Coastal Plain of the Southeast and the Piedmont region. The other is the larger White-breasted Nuthatch, which is widely dispersed throughout the state and North America.
The fourth North American species not found here is the Pygmy Nuthatch which inhabits pine forests in the West.
On the North Carolina mainland, a good birding day can include seeing all three species, what I call scoring a “triple nutter.” But don’t expect that on Ocracoke. Neither the Brown-headed nor the White-breasted Nuthatch breeds on Ocracoke, and they are not migratory. So one should not expect to see them here unless there is a rare occurrence of one straying out of range.
Like other nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches forage by walking up or down tree trunks and large branches, often hanging upside down, in search of seeds, insects, spiders and other arthropods. Unlike the larger White-breasted Nuthatch, these birds will venture onto smaller branches.
A common trait of nuthatches is they will store seeds and arthropods under bark and in woodpecker holes during fall and winter, sometimes concealing their cache with lichen. This is critical for their overwinter survival.
The name “Nuthatch” derives from the old English “nuthack,” referring to the bird’s habit of wedging nuts into cracks in tree bark and hacking at them until they break open.
Possessing strong bills, both the male and female will spend up to 18 days creating a nesting cavity, preferring dead and softwood trees. To deter predators, especially red squirrels, they will smear pine resin around the entrance to their nests.
When these birds are present, the best spot on the island to see them is in the long-leaf pines along the Hammock Hills nature trail across from the NPS campground. This is one of the best locations on the Outer Banks to see them as is Springer’s Point.
Nuthatches may also visit bird feeders in the village, especially those with sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.
When on Ocracoke, their primary predators are Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and Merlins, a small, fast-flying falcon that preys on small birds.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Best time to see: Early fall into winter
Where: Hammock Hills nature trail across from the NPS campground, Springer’s Point, the village and elsewhere that there are long-leaf pines.
This profile was updated on Feb. 7, 2021, from an earlier one done in 2017.
Peter Vankevich is the co-founder and compiler of the Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands Christmas Bird Counts.