Birdwatch: bandit-masked nuthatch has a great party trick

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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