Our stroll took us up the narrow blacktop road through a mixed forest of oak, birch, hickory and pine. We paused to inspect a recently downed tree. To our right, the forest canopy closed tightly as it slipped down the hillside to an unnamed creek.

Chipmunks scampered everywhere, gathering the bounty of fallen acorns. Woodpeckers hammered and called with their high-pitched, accelerating kee-kee-kee. Towhees called out their names, and robins played their whistled tunes. Just in front of us we heard a demanding 'peter-peter-peter.'

A moment later, the insistent songbird popped into view. It was gray on top and white below. Under a gray tufted crown lay large coal-black eyes. A little black smudge above a short, stout bill completed the bird's compelling, inquisitive face. A thin band of rust was brushed on each side, just below the folded wings.

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is a noisy, active character, at home in these woods and all across the Chesapeake region. About 6 inches from bill to the end of its rather long tail, the tufted titmouse has short, rounded wings that help it maneuver in the crowded spaces of its forested habitat.

Male and female tufted titmice look alike.

Tufted titmice are year-round residents in a territory that extends from southernmost Maine, across to the Great Lakes region, and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire Chesapeake basin is included, except for a few of the highest mountains along the Appalachian ridge.

Over the years, the birds have slowly moved their range north as climate change warms the continent. They are abundant in woods, parks and backyards.

Tufted titmice build their nests in cavities. They will use old woodpecker holes and are equally quick to move into backyard birdhouses.

Generally, they produce one brood annually, although in the Southeast they may get in a second. Four or five eggs are laid on a nest of twigs, leaves and fur. They incubate for about two weeks, emerging featherless and blind. Despite their slow start, the babies are ready to fledge in two weeks.

During mating season, the titmouse's diet tends toward the energy-rich insect world. As the year goes on, the diet adjusts to include nuts, seeds and fruit.

Titmice will readily come to backyard bird feeders, favoring sunflower seeds. The birds will come to the feeder and grab a single seed before quickly retreating to a nearby tree. There, the bird uses its short, strong bill to crack open the shell and extract the seed. Titmice cache food, so they may take seed after seed to a nearby location and stuff each seed into crevices of bark.

Titmice are natural acrobats. To the delight of birdwatchers, the birds hop from tree to tree, hang upside down to pull a conifer seed out of a cone, or dangle on a slender, swaying twig to snatch the tiny insect hiding underneath a terminal leaf.

The little unnamed stream on our right is a constant source of fresh water for these active birds. The waters will eventually find their way down to Penn's Creek, the legendary trout stream for fly fishermen. Pure, cold water slides through the limestone geography of this area, coursing its way through the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania on its way to the Susquehanna.

In its clearest stretches, Penn's Creek supports native brook trout and an extraordinary array of mayflies, caddis flies, stoneflies, midges and every other manner of winged insect in the magnificent biodiversity of this lovely tributary. The titmice will get some of them, and so will the trout, but the insect population seems to have no problem keeping up with the expanding number of tufted titmice.

My friend and I pause to watch the daily drama of the woods unfold around us. In this little haven, the world is in balance. The squirrels and chipmunks are unknowingly planting the next generation of the trees that will sustain future generations.

Hungry birds will keep the ubiquitous insects from inflicting too much damage on the living trees. The holes in dead trees will serve as the nesting homes for future tufted titmice. And, when the trees fall, like the one next to us had, the bugs will feast away, turning the dead wood back to rich, loamy soil.

As we turned to start the short walk back to the rustic house, I wanted to bring along this perfect balance. A simple life, well-lived with good friends and time to enjoy nature's bounty. "What could be better than this?" my friend asked.

My silent smile answered, "Nothing."