Three nuthatch species are found in Northeastern California where Leonard and I live: white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), red-breasted nuthatch (S. canadensis) and pygmy nuthatch (S. pygmaea). Although I had decent photographs of the white and red breasted nuthatches, the pygmy continued to elude my camera. A tiny bird, the pygmy nuthatch is in constant motion. Their range is throughout the long-needled forests of the West, especially among ponderosa and Jeffrey pines. Although I often see pygmy nuthatches, I had no luck capturing their images as they quickly moved amid the long, dense pine needles.
Recently while wandering along the Eagle Lake shoreline (Lassen County CA) I discovered a wet area which birds were using as a “watering hole”. A water pipe to the nearby campground had a slow leak. While I watched over fifteen species of birds and mammals came to drink. Although Eagle Lake was only a few feet away, the wildlife appeared to like the fresh water over the alkaline lake water. Finally, there were pygmy nuthatches removed from their pine needle cover as they drank or waited on dead branches for their turn.
Monotypic (both sexes look the same) pygmy nuthatches have a brownish grey cap while the remainder of their upper parts are blue grey. The underparts are whitish with a buff wash on the flanks. The pygmy nuthatch is separated from its cousins, the red and white breasted nuthatches, by the face pattern. The cap of a pygmy ends in a sharp line through the eye. The edge of the cap often looks dark, making the line through the eye appear blackish.
Insects and seeds primarily comprise the pygmy nuthatch’s diet. They forage by climbing over pine trunks and branches in search of food. Throughout the year the pygmy will cache seeds in tree crevices or under bark flakes. Their stout bill is used to open pine cones to reach the seeds.
Social birds, pygmy nuthatches are often found in large flocks, often mixed with other species including chickadees, warblers, juncos, kinglets, finches and bush tits.
Nonmigratory, pygmy nuthatches have three strategies for surviving the cold winters here on the high desert: 1) they find shelter in tree cavities, 2) usually large numbers of pygmy nuthatches will huddle together communally in the tree cavity for warmth, and 3) their body temperature drops into hypothermia.