The Vertical Specialists: White-Breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers

Brown Creeper
Brown Creeper

Photos by Tom Grey

If you see a small bird traveling effortlessly up and down the trunk of a tree, chances are it’s a Nuthatch. Not many birds can match the Nuthatch’s vertical agility. Sonoma County has three varieties of Nuthatch, but in Oakmont the White-Breasted Nuthatch is by far the most common.

A small, sparrow-size bird, the White-Breasted Nuthatch is compact, with no neck to speak of, a short tail, beady black eyes, and a long, pointy beak – it looks sort of like a little thug who’s thrusting out a slightly up-turned switchblade. This Nuthatch has a black cap, a white face and breast, and blue-gray back and wings. Its underside is white with rusty markings near the rear. If you see one up close (such as on a feeder), you’ll notice its long toes that assist with climbing.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

While mainly insectivores, Nuthatches have a soft spot for sunflower seeds and love suet, so they frequently come to feeders. Often one will carry a larger seed from a feeder to a nearby tree, and then jam it into the bark. This holds the seed in place like a vise while the bird chisels it open with its beak.

The White-Breasted Nuthatch’s call is a repeated nasal bleat, sounding something like “Yank…yank…yank.” It’s monotonous but apparently covers everything they want to say.

The other bird in Oakmont that works in a vertical mode is the Brown Creeper, which like the Nuthatch forages the bark of larger trees for insects. But unlike the Nuthatch, the Creeper is nearly always upwardly mobile – it travels up tree trunks, and when it gets to the top, it flies down to the bottom of another tree and starts creeping up again.

Creepers are very small, with delicate, down-curved beaks and long tails, which they use to help them on their upward climb. They are mottled brown, very much like tree bark and therefore excellently camouflaged – easy to miss unless you notice their motion. Look for them on larger trees with rough bark, such as redwoods, cedars, or Douglas firs. Their songs are very high and tinkling – a real challenge for those of us with hearing issues.

These birds are easy to learn: If it’s gray and white and moving up and down tree trunks, it’s a Nuthatch. If it looks like a piece of moving bark and is only traveling up, it’s a Creeper. Nuthatches are common at feeders, Creepers are not. Both birds are here year-round.

Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting bkendrick@jps.net. Share what you’re seeing. Hear about occasional bird walks. Questions about birds? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail.

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