If I had a blog, today I would write about my infidelity to the white-breasted nuthatch. Sitting at the breakfast table this morning, the predominant “bird song” at the feeder is the nasal yank-yank of the white-breasted nuthatches. These funny little birds are all about the vertical, moving up and down tree-trunks with the greatest of ease. Nuthatches, chickadees, and tufted titmice are the three birds I’ve known the longest. As a four-year old, I built a blind under our kitchen table and, with Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds close at hand, Mom and I spent hours identifying the birds at our winter feeder. That was the year I came to know the nuthatch. I practiced making their call and memorized everything Mom read about their natural history. I thought they looked like little sailors in their tidy blue jackets with a white shirt underneath and was inspired to do countless drawings of these funny little upside-down clowns. For thirty-eight years I was faithful in my love of the white-breasted nuthatch, but in 2006 I failed.
That autumn, Mom and I went on a week-long vacation to Northern Minnesota, setting up base-camp near the town of Ely. Our rental cabin had bird feeders galore and on the first morning of our visit, during breakfast, I met another member of the nuthatch family and he stole my heart away. This avian Casanova was the red-breasted nuthatch. RBN’s are smaller than their southern cousins and they have a rosy red breast like a robin. They also have a prominent, black eye-stripe that gives their gaze a compelling intensity. I fell in love at once.
For an entire week, I enjoyed the company of the RBNs and spent hours taking pictures of my love. When we left for home, I admit I felt a twinge of sadness that it would be at least another year before I saw my heart-throb again, but at least I could enjoy the antics of the white-breasted nuthatches at home.
Back on the farm, I was careful not to let the WBN’s know about my infidelity. I praised their color and their grace and made sure they got their favorite seed and suet-blocks. I took extra photographs of their exploits and actually appreciated them more than I had in the past. Nevertheless, I missed my friend from the North Woods. Then it happened: One of the most stunning events in my birdwatching career took place right in my back yard.
It was a perfect afternoon in late October. I was sitting on the patio, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the mellow light only autumn can bring. Birds came and went at the feeders; chickadees, titmice, a downy woodpecker – all old friends. A nuthatch swooped in and landed on one of the suet cakes. As he bopped into sight, I caught a glimpse of red. That wasn’t right. The white-breasted nuthatch has no red. Was this a sport; a mutation of some kind? I grabbed my camera and used the zoom lens as a spotting scope and what I saw made my heart skip a beat: A red-breasted nuthatch was sitting on my feeder.
I took a photo after photo, to prove to myself, as much as anyone, that this was really happening. After the RBN left, I went into the house and thumbed through my trusty Peterson’s Field Guide. Sure enough, Mr. Peterson assured me that, when the feeding conditions in the south are particularly good, the RBN will migrate into our area. Who knew? Thirty-eight years of avid birdwatching and I had never, ever seen an RBN at my feeder. Now, just a month after meeting him for the first time in Minnesota, he showed up in my own back yard. I was flabbergasted.
As I journaled about the experience that night, I tried not to go overboard about the event. The logical part of my brain chastened me that there was no way this bird was remotely related to the handsome lad I’d seen in Minnesota. It was a lovely coincidence, but nothing more. The problem is, I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe that these rare moments are synchronicities, events that occur together and have a spiritual in meaning. I wish Roger Tory Peterson had written A Field Guide to Synchronicities because it isn’t always apparent just what the Powers-That-Be are saying, but if nothing else it lets me know, to lift a quote from Hamlet: “There is more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I have seen RBN’s in Missouri a couple of times since that first magical afternoon and I take their presence as assurance that my infidelity is forgiven. The heart wants what the heart wants and over that we have little choice. Today I will enjoy the fledgling WBN’s that have arrived at my feeder but as summer turns to fall, I will keep watch. Perhaps on the perfect October afternoon, my favorite autumn guest will grace my home with his presence and reassure me that all is well in Heaven and Earth.