Sunday, March 22, 2015

Flying Pigs and Nesting Nuthatches

The advent of spring brings with it a plethora of opportunities for Hoot Owl Karma, and we couldn't be more excited! Today we spent a while investigating some intriguing avian activity at Papa Jim and Grandma Charlene's house.

The scrubby old oak tree in front of their house succumbed to a variety of natural causes a few years back, but my dad insisted on retaining a sizable hunk of the stump for more than just old time's sake. 

In the warm summer months, it serves as a sturdy plant stand, supporting a large pot in the center and four additional hanging baskets around the sides. In the winter, it serves equally well as a landing pad for the flying pig and a varied assortment of bird feeders, providing all manner of feathered friends the opportunity to dine in the company of the blue-backed porker.

This past fall and winter, however, a pair of birds became rather fond of the stump itself, traversing its surface from top to bottom, with a particular interest in the curious formation of mushrooms on its southern flank. 

In his daily observations, my dad wondered if they were searching for insects, or perhaps eating the dried mushrooms.
Eventually, it became apparent that their interest in the stump was more than culinary. 

Slowly but surely, peck by peck and speck by speck, the industrious pair was carving a tiny custom-made nesting cavity from the old, dry flesh of the oak.

Upon our arrival this weekend, the brown-headed nuthatches were busily foraging among the bark and cones on the stately long-leaf pine which stands sentinel at the corner of the front porch.

Although they loom rather large in the zoom of our lens, these beautiful birds are quite small relative to other common backyard birds, topping out at around four inches, about the size of the tiny Carolina chickadee.

Clearly still in the nest-building stage, this handsome pair made trip after trip to and from the pine next door, bringing small pieces of bark, straw and pine seed wings with which to line the nest cavity.

The brown-headed nuthatch was a relatively common bird of my childhood in the Sandhills, and its range is confined to the pine woods of the Southeastern US like those found in our Sandhills region. Its numbers have been in steady decline since the mid-1960's along with the decline of its traditional pine savannah habitat.

Its cousin, the white-breasted nuthatch (pictured below), shares both physical similarities and similar habits, but is notably larger, lacks the brown cap, and is more commonly associated with deciduous forests. As a result, it is much more widely distributed and relatively common throughout North America.

Both the male and female brown-headed nuthatches are actively engaged in nest-building on this sunny afternoon,

and although the general physical appearance of male and female are identical,

these two individuals can be distinguished by differences in the size and shape of the white patch on the back of their heads. As to which is the male and which the female, however, we'll leave that question for the true experts!

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this nest-building enterprise is the siting of the cavity. As we approached the stump with our camera, having already been told where to look, it took nearly half a minute for our eyes and brains to apprehend the opening, so perfectly was it situated on the craggy bark in the shadows of a multitude of shelf fungi. 

And even as the birds peer from the opening, their brown caps and white throats blend perfectly with the brown fungi and sun-dappled dead gray bark, rendering them virtually invisible to all but the keenest eyes.

We snap a few more shots and prepare to head for home, awed and inspired once more by nature's ingenuity,

and grateful for family and friends who share our enthusiasm for the natural wonders that await just outside the door.

Spring is here, so why not open the door, step over the threshold, and join us in exploring the wonderful surprises it brings!

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