There are two species of bird found here in Portugal and, although very different in appearance, they are similar in the remarkable way they cling and crawl through trees, almost mouse-like. Both can easily be found all year throughout woodland in Portugal.
Nuthatches are unmistakable with both sexes similar in appearance, having orange underparts, white throat and blue-grey wings, finished off with a striking black eye stripe. Juveniles obtain the colours as they age. They are similar in size to a great tit, at around 14cm in length, and can be found easily by following their loud “dwiip” call which is repeated. Nuthatches have an amazing skill – they can descend tree trunks and branches headfirst, which is a skill not many birds have.
Nuthatches often remove bark to gain access to insects and you can often hear them tapping, which may sound like a woodpecker, however, they cannot chisel wood like woodpeckers do.
Although their diet is made up mainly of insects, in the autumn and winter, nuts and seeds are on the menu and they can cache them in crevices, cracks and even under lichen and moss. The name nuthatch is thought to have been derived from the process of them pecking at cached nuts to remove them.
Nuthatches are usually monogamous and spend most of their life together. In springtime, you can often spot both sexes performing a courtship display, with the male often feeding the female while courtship is taking place. If the skill of descending headfirst isn’t already impressive, they can also reduce the opening of an old woodpecker nest by constructing a mud door frame (usually the female) to the exact size they require to help keep out predators and other larger birds from taking ownership.
Clutch size varies between six and 13 eggs, which are incubated for up to three weeks. Chicks fledge three weeks later where they are fed for a further two weeks until they gain their independence. Nuthatches rarely move far from their birthplace, taking up residence in a nearby empty territory. With so many numbers living in close proximity, it gives the perfect opportunity as a meal by their number one predator, sparrowhawks.
The short-toed treecreeper is another bird that can effortlessly crawl its way around tree trunks and branches, although it cannot descend headfirst like the nuthatch; instead it flies to the base of a tree and climbs foraging for insects as it ascends.
They seem to love cork oak trees, so spotting them in Portuguese woodland is easy and they often seem undisturbed by the presence of humans close by. They are smaller than the nuthatch at only 12cm in length.
Plumage in both sexes is similar with streaked and spotted brown, grey and white upperparts and white underparts. The giveaway is the long, curved beak they use to forage for insects. The tail has long and stiff feathers to assist as a support whilst ascending (which can be seen in the photo).
“Short-toed” is due to separation from the Eurasian treecreeper which is very difficult to tell apart. Here in Portugal, the Eurasian treecreeper is not present and, therefore, we are free from the hardship of identification – all treecreepers will be the short-toed species.
The call is a repeated high-pitched “teet-teet-teet” which is loud enough to catch your attention to one being close by.
As with the nuthatch, nesting can take place in old woodpecker nests (without the skill of reducing the aperture of the entrance). They also nest in rock or building crevices and will also take up breeding residency in man-made nest boxes. Between five and seven eggs are laid and incubated by the female for two weeks and, around two weeks later, they fledge.
Often a second brood is raised where the male will start to build a new nest while the female is feeding the first brood. The male often takes over the feeding duties towards the end of the second week and the female completes the nest building.
Although most of the year they are solitary, during the winter months, short-toed treecreepers will often gather to roost.
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography