Brown-headed Nuthatch

Once upon a time, there was a river. It flowed from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Wateree River, which flowed to the Santee River, which flowed to the sea. A people known as the Catawba lived along its banks, and after assorted Europeans came and killed, infected, evicted, or otherwise displaced them, the river continued to bear their name.

In 2008, the Catawba, with the Wateree, was named the most endangered river in America.

One reason for this designation is the Cowans Ford Dam, a hydroelectric dam that created, among other things, Lake Norman, by backing up the river into the valleys that surrounded it. And Lake Norman created lakefront property, and lakefront property creates a near-unstiflable urge in certain people to build hideous “communities” full of overly large houses, golf courses, boat slips, designer dogs, and people who were born on second base, stole third, and still think they hit a home run.

Christmas, of course, is a time for family. In this case, the Inimitable Todd’s family. Which means Lake Norman.

Some 45 minutes from the artifice of the lake is the somewhat more noble artifice of the McDowell Nature Preserve, where a project is underway to restore a fragment of the native prairie. McDowell also has several miles of hiking trails that encompass creeks, lowlands, cedar forests, and bits of the equally artificial Lake Wylie.

I was hoping it might also have Brown-headed Nuthatches. But Brown-headed Nuthatches are among the many birds that have declined due to fire suppression, keeping such elite company in that regard as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Scrub Jay, and Kirtland’s Warbler. They like mature, open pine forests, and apparently McDowell Nature Preserve did not fit their bill. It was too dense, perhaps, or the cedars not appealing.

It was a lovely preserve for all that – full of easy trails, soft earth, and flocks of traditional winter birds of the southeast U.S. – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, both kinds of Kinglets. Brown Creepers throwing me into a false alarm every time they hitched along a limb. Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Cardinals.

Two days later, with Christmas hanging tattered in our past and a flight back to JFK in our very near future, I was walking the streets around Lake Norman with the Inimitable Todd . I knew I was bound to find some last-minute goodies here – mix of wooded and lawn/golf course habitat had previously been productive for Eastern Bluebirds, the occasional Loggerhead Shrike, and of course more Chickadees, Titmice, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Just a few days prior I’d spotted a massive, sleek Cooper’s Hawk scoping out a neighbor’s birdfeeder.

A flock of Chickadees and Titmice bounced from pine to pine as we rounded a corner, calling constantly. Among the calls – so similar to the calls that a similar flock might make up in NYC or Buffalo, yet distinctly different, half-formed and blurry to an ear more used to Black-capped Chickadees – I noticed a sort of dog toy squeak. “You know,” I said to the Inimitable Todd, “Nuthatches sound a lot like that…”

I put my binoculars on the source of the call, a small bird hammering at a pinecone far above my head. At first, I could only make out a slate back – but the profile seemed wrong for a Titmouse or Chickadee. And then it turned. And as if someone had written the story, the brown head and white nape spot became obvious. Another bird, younger, without the nape spot, joined the first. And then a third appeared.

I stared as long as my wrists would let me, then handed the binoculars to the Inimitable Todd. Eventually the flock moved on, taking with it what was most likely my last life bird of the decade. A bird that appeared, even in this inauspicious place, determined to survive.

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