A velvet breeze stroked the lake, and the waters responded with a kaleidoscope of silver flashes on a field of endlessly changing sapphire and onyx. Out of a cloudless azure sky, the morning sun lit every pine along the shoreline. The reflection off the rippling waters illuminated the trees from below as well. Lit with a curator's care, each pine needle was in crystalline focus. Light danced among the boughs.
The broad lake was rimmed by a mature oak-pine forest that slipped down the hillsides to the water's edge. The panorama was stunning, but I couldn't take my eyes off those perfect pines just in front of me.
Not seeing the forest for these singular trees was a happy choice, not a lack of visual perspective. At work, I spend hours staring at a computer screen. The pine trees were a balm and I wasn't about to let them go.
The visual spell was broken when a bird landed on the deeply creased bark of the white pine's trunk. The tiny bird with a barrel chest immediately twisted 180 degrees and was facing downward. It arched its back and neck and looked right at me.
The acrobatic red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is a regular in these conifers. In the spring, these short-distance migrants will go as far north as the montane forests just below the Arctic tundra to breed. They are also year-round residents across a broad swath of Canada, New England and the length of the Appalachians and Rockies.
In the Chesapeake basin, the birds can be seen in parts of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia at any time of the year. During winter, these birds can be seen almost anywhere in the lower 48 states. Breeding bird surveys indicate that the resident range is moving slightly southward.
A black-capped chickadee darted by. The bird's frequent "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" joined the chorus of other birds actively feeding this graceful morning. Goldfinches and ruby-throated hummingbirds blitzed the feeders at the cabin.
Hidden in the hardwoods, a red-eyed vireo demanded, "Here I am; where are you?" The cacophony of a fractious D.C. slipped away from me, replaced by the peaceful chatter of the morning forest.
Meanwhile, the red-breasted nuthatch that I was watching was making an unusual spiraling descent on the trunk, exploring each crevice for insects. After a 10-foot drop, he bounded up and over to an adjacent pine. This time he scooted up the trunk for a foot or two before switching to the unconventional downward approach. He looked like a Cirque de Soleil acrobat ignoring the dictates of gravity.
The other birds were eating hungrily, readying themselves for winter migrations. The nuthatch had a different approach than most, but he was having no trouble keeping up with the generalized feeding frenzy.
Red-breasted nuthatches eat insects when they are available, especially during nesting season. The species also eats conifer seeds and many backyard bird feeder options such as sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts. The bird caches excess seeds for winter.
The red-breasted nuthatch is a blue-gray bird with a rusty red breast and belly. A black eye stripe is topped by a prominent white eyebrow. Males, like the one I was watching, have a black cap. The top of the female's head is closer to the blue-gray of its back and wings. Her breast and belly are also a paler shade of red than the male's.
Short, rounded wings are well-adapted to flying in the woods. Nuthatches have a relatively long, thin bill that is well-suited to probing small spaces in tree bark for insects. This bill also serves another purpose. Unlike most songbirds, red-breasted nuthatches excavate their nests from solid wood. It can take weeks to drill a home where the female will lay her eggs. She incubates the eggs for 12â€“13 days before they hatch. It may take another three weeks before the chicks are ready to leave the nest.
The nest hole opening is usually smeared with pine sap. The birds sometimes use pieces of bark to apply the sap, which appears to repel nest parasites. These diminutive birds also use bark pieces to probe recesses for insects. Their use of tools is primitive but unmistakable. The list of odd avian behaviors for this species is long and impressive.
My singular focus on that perfectly lit pine was a bit outside the norm, too, but it was no less visually rewarding than those whose preferences tend more toward the panoramic.
Different perspectives flourish here in the forest. I wish I could stow that flexibility into my pack and turn it loose in D.C. We certainly could use it.