red breasted nuthatch at suet feeder

Red-breasted Nuthatch on suet feeder Photo by Mike Link

There is a schedule that the birds follow in the mornings at the feeders.  First, before full light, the goldfinches come in to the feeder containing Nyjer seed, and furiously peck at the ground for tidbits that have fallen down. Northern Cardinals also seem to prefer dawn and dusk to visit the feeders.  By 8 a.m., the blue jays have arrived and taken over every feeder in sight – black sunflower seed or suet.  They squawk and squabble with one another, fly away en masse at the slightest disturbance and then come swooping back moments later to resume their ravenous ways.

Around 11 a.m., they are gone and once again smaller birds dare to venture in.  The other morning I watched with surprise as three red-breasted nuthatches flew from one suet feeder to the next.  They were not very tolerant of one another – only one was allowed on the suet at a time, while the other two hopped about nearby.   Red-breasted Nuthatches are a bird of the northern forests, and smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, weighing only 1/3-ounce and measuring 4 ½ inches in length.  Like their cousins the white-breasted nuthatch, they move up and down tree trunks headfirst. The toes on their feet are arranged in such a way that makes this sort of movement possible.

white breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch Photo by Mike Link

The word ‘nuthatch’ describes both the food and the means by which the birds get it.  Hatch is actually a corruption of ‘hack’, which means to pry open seeds and nuts with its bill.  You may have seen one of these attractive little birds, with their black cap, white face and black eye stripe, take a sunflower seed and then fly to another tree and wedge the seed into the bark, so that it can more easily hammer at the shell.   But given the choice between sunflower seeds and suet, there is no competition.  The suet is instant energy with no expenditures.

In fact, I have increased the number of suet feeders in our yard, and watched as woodpeckers and blue jays and chickadees vie for the delicacy.  I watch the show from the kitchen window.  If they’re lucky the smaller birds will have a half hour to feast by themselves, but once the blue jays get wind of the bounty, they’re there monopolizing it.  No matter if it’s frozen solid or partially, with their big bills they are able to pry out big chunks that they carry away to cache for later.

snow buntings in nonbreeding plumage

Snow buntings in the autumn Photo by Mike Link

snow bunting on snow

The undersides of the Snow Buntings show more white and this flashes whenever they are in flight.

While the small birds that come to our feeder have remained the same all winter, I finally got to see another very beautiful species that is found near bigger open fields.  These are the snow buntings, an Artic visitor.  They are a species that mainly eats seeds and prefers large open landscape. Not surprising, since they spend their spring and summer months on the Arctic tundra – a rolling, nearly treeless landscape.  I have seen photos of them eating wild bird seed in a person’s yard, but we have never had that great experience.  They come south each fall and so, as I drive along country roads, I keep my eyes peeled for large flocks of small birds (a bout the size of a sparrow and a member of that family) that flash white when they bank and turn as one.  Their feathers are actually a mix of white and brown, but more white in the winter, especially on their underside and wing feathers.

These birds will soon be heading north for the 2017 breeding season.  They breed father north (including northern Greenland) than any other songbird.  All they need is some exposed dirt and plant seeds, and that continuous Artic sunshine to survive.

By Kate Crowley