BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Commonalities of the red crossbill and pygmy nuthatch
My recent trip was filled with new discoveries. Take for instance my two favorite species of birds that I’ve come to know inhabiting the Nebraska National Forest and state wildlife management areas that I hiked on -- the red crossbill and pygmy nuthatch.
One of my simplest of pleasures is listening to the sounds of bird songs and calls. Vocalizations of birds and learning how to distinguish the infinite number of different call notes and beautiful songs enhances one’s knowledge of birds, which in turns aids in our skills at identifying birds at home and from afar.
Though I’m not a world class birder -- I’ve never been to exotic places on expensive birding trips -- I do have an “ear” for birds everywhere I go. Even when I watch a television show or a movie, I’m often making comments either out loud or to myself about the dubbed bird songs and calls.
I laugh whenever I hear the classic red-tailed hawk call as the camera pans an expansive landscape with an eagle as the scene’s supposed source of the call, or when I hear the cry of a loon echoing across a desert landscape scene, or the springtime melodies of meadowlarks singing merrily in the wintertime on yet another far-fetched Hollywood set. I always find myself wondering, doesn’t the producer or director of such scenes have a biologist to consult?
In any event, I just returned from another glorious five-days of hiking throughout the gorgeous and rugged Nebraska Panhandle. If you’ve never visited this incredible landscape in northwest Nebraska, south of the Sandhills within the stunning butte country, escarpments and ponderosa pines, put it on your bucket list of places to visit.
Throughout the week, while surrounded by breathtaking vistas, I found myself constantly studying the many interesting species of plant and animals unfamiliar to me. My first trip to northwest Nebraska was a year ago. And like last year, my recent trip was filled with new discoveries. As well, many observations were now familiar since I encountered the same plants and animals once again.
Take for instance my two favorite species of birds that I’ve come to know inhabiting the Nebraska National Forest and state wildlife management areas that I hiked on -- the red crossbill and pygmy nuthatch.
These two species of birds seem to always be in close proximity to one another and it’s very common to hear them singing, calling, and feeding on various zones of individual ponderosa pine trees -- crossbills extracting pine nuts from between the scales of cones within the canopies and pygmy nuthatches scattered lower on the tree or flying to the ground in search of seeds, insects and whatnot.
Pygmy nuthatches are a very attractive and small, vocal nuthatch at just 3.5 inches long (compared to the five-inch white-breasted nuthatch). They enjoy the company of one another more so than the familiar white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches found in Minnesota.
Whereas here at home white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches are rarely seen in groups larger than a few, pygmy nuthatches are often observed in large flocks feeding together not unlike the gregarious habit of black-capped chickadees. In fact, both black-capped chickadees and the previously mentioned red-crossbills seem to frequent together common food sources.
What is also noteworthy of pygmy nuthatches are the many and varied vocalizations they produce. Loud but musical, the songs and calls of pygmy nuthatches are a joy to listen to, especially during a time of year when springtime choruses of other species of birds are absent.
And like the pygmy nuthatch, red crossbills are just as vociferous if not a tad bit more musical. Singing and calling to each other in the towering ponderosa pine treetops, red crossbills sing and call in large flocks that produces a pleasing cacophony of bird music, snapping beaks, and cracking sounds of pine scales being pried open. Aside from the audible enjoyment, the visuals are equally as thrilling -- the brilliant colors, constant movement, and umpteen pine seeds raining down in helicopter-like fashion to the forest floor.
Indeed, all about us, whether we’re observing our backyard birds here at home or at birds from elsewhere, the songs and calls and activities of birds everywhere are Nature’s gifts as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.