By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist
Some of the coolest birds we have been catching at the banding stations at Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve are the ‘tree-dwellers’: the woodpeckers and nuthatches. These birds aren’t always easy to see during the summertime as they spend most of their day deep in the forest, hugging trunks or branches. However, once you learn to recognize the high-pitched ‘peenk’ of the Downy Woodpecker and the nasal ‘honk-honk-honk’ of the White-breasted Nuthatch you soon realize that both of these birds are quite common year-round.
We have caught and banded 11 Downy Woodpeckers since June and they are a treat to handle. Their bill is thin but strong and they have distinctive tufts of stiff bristles over their nostrils which probably stop chips of wood flying up their nose when they are hammering on trees!
Like several woodpeckers, you can tell what sex adult Downies are by checking out how many red feathers they have on their head – males have a red square at the back of their head but females do not. In most birds you cannot tell what sex juvenile birds are but in Downy Woodpeckers you can – the males have a spotted red cap but the females have a spotted white cap. Try to see if you can spot this next time you are out birdwatching!
One morning at Ashland a group of lucky visitors were present when a Downy Woodpecker was captured in the same net as a Hairy Woodpecker! The Hairy Woodpecker is a larger version of the Downy but is much less commonly seen or heard, and the two can easily be confused as they look very similar. If you happen to be holding them both however, the difference is obvious – the Hairy is a bulky, powerful bird that is over twice the size of the dainty Downy.
We have caught 7 White-breasted Nuthatches so far and one of the first things you notice about them is their long thin, uptilted bill, which they use to pry up pieces of bark to get at the juicy insects beneath. Nuthatches can also be sexed according to their crown color, with males having a black crown and females having a paler, gray crown.
Even though nuthatches are striking birds at any distance they are even more stunning up close, with a sublime mix of black, white and blue-gray feathers and a distinctive patch of pale brown feathers underneath their tail. Interestingly, even though nuthatches spend a lot of their time climbing up tree trunks in the same way as woodpeckers, their toes are arranged like those of most birds, with three toes forward and one back (although the back toe has a long claw, as seen in the photo below). Unlike woodpeckers however, nuthatches will also climb down trunks and branches, and maybe they need three forward-pointing toes to brace themselves on these downward trips?
If you want to see either of these amazing birds, please visit one of our banding stations and you may get lucky. Alternatively, both of them can easily be attracted to bird feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed, especially during the wintertime.
Ian Stewart will be conducting a Bird Banding Demonstration on Saturday, October 10 as part of our programming at the Big Sit. The Big Sit is an international competition to find as many species of birds from one location, a 17-foot-diameter circle, during the day this Saturday. The Big Sit will be held at the Ashland Nature Center Hawk Watch, and we will also be offering nature walks at 10am and 2pm, a 1pm lecture on the Raptors of Fall Migration, and food to keep you going!