A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Present year-round in Sonoma County, but not a common bird. Until 2012, I had seen Red-breasted Nuthatch  in the county only at Bodega Bay, and there sporadically, but this bird has a history of irruptions, becoming suddenly more widespread at irregular intervals (usually in late summer and the autumn months, according to Bolander and Parmeter). Burridge attributes these irruptions to periods of scarcity of seed-cone crops, Lukas to unusually large influxes of migrants from the north. In the autumn-winter of 2012-2013 we had such an irruption. Uses both coniferous and deciduous forests, the latter mostly in the winter, but seems to like conifers in moister areas best regardless of season. Believed to breed in the county, but confirmed records of breeding are scarce and the first record is recent (1982). May be solitary, in pairs, or in small, loose flocks. Will often join mixed foraging flocks, associating with Oak Titmouse, warblers, chickadees, kinglets, and even small woodpeckers, especially in the winter and during migration. Can be quite tame and inquisitive. 

The male's bluish-grey back, black cap, rusty belly, white face with bold black eyestripe, needle-like bill, tiny size, and stubby tail combine to make identification easy. Not likely to be confused with any other bird. White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is larger with a white face, breast, and belly (although washed with rust at the vent). Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea) is much smaller and lacks the eyeline set off by white above and below. Red-breasted Nuthatch shows white bands on the tail in flight. Note that White-breasted Nuthatch is by far the most common of the three nuthatches normally present in Sonoma County.

Female Red-breasted Nuthatch looks like a washed-out version of the male (photo below). Juveniles also have duller heads and paler undersides. Exhibits typical nuthatch behavior--walks along branches and tree trunks (often going down head-first) prying under bark looking for insects, spiders, and insect eggs and larvae. Mostly eats insects in the summer, coniferous seeds in the winter. Uses bird feeders when available. Known to cache seeds and insects in crevices. Distinctive, soft, high-pitched, nasal call is often described as sounding like a toy horn. Usually described as yank or ank, or as henk or enk or ink, but makes a variety of other noises (see Stokes, p. 532).

Selected county sightings: Owl Canyon (Jul 31, 2013, Dea Freid); Tomales Rd., Petaluma (May 6, 2013, Gene Hunn); Arroyo Sierra Dr. (Feb 8, 2032, Colin Talcroft); Bodega Bay (Nov 23, 2012, Logan Kahle); Arroyo Sierra Dr. (Nov 14, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa (Nov 12, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility (Oct 15, 2012, Kathleen Mugele); Brush Creek Trail (Oct 16, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Tolay Creek Ranch (Oct 10, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Jenner Headlands (Oct 3, 2012, Larry Broderick); Owl Canyon, Bodega Bay (Sep 23, 2012, Phil Eager, Mimi Calter); Spring Lake (Sep 17, 2012,Ruth Rudesill); Owl Canyon, Bodega Bay (Sep 4, 2012, Gene Hunn); Owl Canyon, Bodega Bay (Aug 23, 2012, Dea Feid); Whaleship Rd., Bodega Bay (Nov 18, 2010, Colin Talcroft); Campbell Cove (Sep 3, 2010, Dan Nelson) 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 92

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 343

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 119

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 340

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 380

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 472-473

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 436

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 282

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 338

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 286

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 208-209

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 54

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 238

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 278

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 262

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 325

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 532

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 312

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Red-breasted Nuthatch

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--White-breasted Nuthatch

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Pygmy Nuthatch



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Red-breasted Nuthatch (male), Point Reyes (Marin County), September 12, 2012

Red-breasted Nuthatch (female), Point Reyes (Marin County), September 15, 2012

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta canadensis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 3, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

For comparison: White-breasted Nuthatch, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, December 16, 2012

Note the eye completely surrounded by white

For comparison: Pygmy Nuthatch, Barnett Valley Road

Sebastopol, December 27, 2015

Note the two-toned face