Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Warbler That Thinks It's a Nuthatch

Nuthatches are an interesting group of birds - superficially related to woodpeckers in habitat and behaviour but in fact a distinct group.  They forage for food by running up and (unlike the woodpeckers) down tree trunks, foraging for insects and seeds.  In the Calgary region, there are two common species - Red-breasted and White-breasted, which is pictured below at Pearce Estates.  This profile view highlights the slightly upturned beak, wonderfully adapted for prying under bark.
White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
During our August vacation to Ontario, we spent some time on an island cottage on the Rideau Canal.  As we were hauling bags from the boathouse to the main building I saw some movement in the corner of my eye which that little part of my brain that is always birding (yes, you all know what I'm talking about!) processed as "black and white on the head + running around tree trunk = white-breasted nuthatch".  When I had a chance to put down the bags, pick up my binos, and head back out I realized it was something a little more special.  In addition to Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings, Nashville Warblers, and an Eastern Phoebe, our little island was also home to a pair of Black and White Warblers.

Black-and-white Warbler, Mniotilta varia - Click image to enlarge
As you can see, this quirky species feeds much like the nuthatches and creepers, foraging between the bark for insects.  So strongly is this behaviour exhibited that they were once mistakenly named "black-and-white creepers".  The great benefit for birdwatchers is that the birds' feeding habits draw them down from the tree canopy making them more readily observable than many other warblers.  Add to this the bold stripes that make identification a snap compared to many other warblers and I may have a new favourite wood-warbler!
More nuthatch-like antics! - again click to enlarge
This is supposedly a Calgary bird blog so what about the Alberta distribution of these birds?  I have yet to add one to my Alberta list but the Official List of the Birds of Alberta gives them a 'findability' of 2:  "species [that] are generally less abundant and widespread".  Despite the lower ranking, and the fact that Alberta is the western limit of their range, these birds are still regulars in Calgary and were reported last week in Confederation Park.  A couple of weeks before that I was with a group that found one in Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, although I wasn't able to get on the bird before it disappeared.

In any case these are charming and unique warblers.  Next time you are out in the spring, summer, or fall, if a flash of black and white running around a tree catches your eye, I recommend taking a closer look.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos of the warbler, I saw a Black and White Warbler earlier this spring, and it too is my favorite wood warbler.