Big Red-breasted Nuthatch Irruption Year

By dgross October 7, 2016
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Red-breasted Nuthatch hanging from a Norway spruce cone by Jake Dingel, PGC

It looks like a big irruption by Red-breasted Nuthatch is happening now in fall 2016. Sounding like a tiny tinhorn, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is not large in size but very big in personality. Red-breasted Nuthatches often irrupt south when their conifer seed sources decline, often in alternative years reflecting cone production (or lack of it) by northern spruces and firs. These diminutive fellows will forage not only on our native conifers but also planted exotics like Norway spruce and Scots Pine. I find them in stands of eastern hemlock, red spruce, black spruce, eastern tamarack, and eastern white pine usually at higher elevations, but also in a variety of ornamental, wind-break, or erosion-control conifer plantations comprised of Norway spruce, white fir, and scots pine. Some of the best islands of tall conifers are old Civil Conservation Corps plantings or old timber towns. Cemeteries and parks also are places with the ornamental and erosion-control conifer planting that attracts these and other northern birds. They regularly nest in an old Christmas tree planting behind my house comprised of scots pine and a variety of firs, spruces, and Douglas-fir. This helps explain how they can be found in a variety of locations far from their northern homes.

Looking ahead, Red-breasted Nuthatches can do a ‘carry-through nesting’, that is that they will nest in a location that they irrupted into if the conifer seed supply lasts. I observed this phenomenon early in my career when a few pairs found a very productive grove of Virginia or scrub pine in the Council Cup woods of lower Luzerne County. The seed crop was so abundant that the nuthatches stayed through spring establishing an outlying breeding population. Can we anticipate this phenomenon in the spring and summer of 2017? It would be worth watching for Red-breasted Nuthatches staying on through spring.

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Jake Dingel

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Jake Dingel

Another boreal bird that I have observed in good numbers lately is the Purple Finch. I have a small breeding population locally, but I have heard many more flying overhead recently. They may take advantage not only of conifers and feeding stations, but also the seeds of maples, birches, and ashes.

Male Purple Finch by J. Dingel, PGC

Male Purple Finch by J. Dingel, PGC

The Blue Jay migration also seems heavy with many jays foraging on acorns on the way. I can hear the plopping of acorns on the ground behind our house as Blue Jays gather them and cache them for future use.  You can review a story about this in a previous Pennsylvania eBird story:  http://content.ebird.org/pa/news/jays-airlifting-the-oaks/

Blue Jay with Acorns by Jake Dingel

Blue Jay with Acorns by Jake Dingel

eBird records of Red-breasted Nuthatches would nicely document this latest invasion year and also the follow-up nesting. I would not be surprised to see them nesting at some isolated lower elevation woodlots. It might be helpful to add some notes on their feeding behavior and landscape context. I am hearing Red-breasted Nuthatches in places far from a large conifer stand or “northern forest.”

Doug Gross, PA Game Commission Ornithologist

A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a hanging oil sunflower feeder. Suet is another attractant. However, birders should not rely solely on feeders for nuthatches since they are easy to find in conifers. By J. Dingel.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a hanging oil sunflower feeder. Suet is another attractant. However, birders should not rely solely on feeders for nuthatches since they are easy to find in conifers. By J. Dingel.

 

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