Birdwatch: bandit-masked nuthatch has a great party trick

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Birdwatch: bandit-masked nuthatch has a great party trick

Tree-hugger with a ‘don’t mess with me’ expression can be found – uniquely – walking down

Nuthatch

Wed 13 Oct 2021 01.00 EDT

There are trees on the flat, wet Somerset Levels. But not enough to attract that classic woodland bird, the nuthatch (Sitta europaea). So I head up to a wooded ridge overlooking the marshes, where these charismatic tree-huggers can be found.

Here at the RSPB’s Swell Wood reserve, “Mrs Moss’s car park rule” applies: that’s where you often get great views of birds. True to form, almost as soon as I open the car door, I hear the loud, percussive call of a nuthatch.

Peering up into the canopy, I see it. Gun-metal blue-grey above, rich orange below, with that black bandit-mask that gives the bird a “don’t mess with me” expression.

Hopping jerkily from one branch to another, it then descends the trunk of a gnarled old oak. The world’s 29 species of nuthatch are the only birds that can walk down, as well as up, a tree; a useful way of distinguishing them from woodpeckers, or the mouse-like treecreeper.

We then head to the viewpoint over West Sedgemoor, where a scan reveals a flock of Europe’s tallest bird. Cranes are now pretty much guaranteed here – though in this vast, open landscape they can be surprisingly hard to find.

Back in the car park, coal and marsh tits join their commoner cousins on the feeder; while high above, amid the autumn foliage, the nuthatch still calls loud and proud.

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