Jim McGuire: Water, woods and nuthatches

I’ve always liked the borderland country along the sunset side of the state — specifically, that narrow strip north of Route 40 and immediately east of the Ohio-Indian line.

Farms are large and far apart. The whole area is deeply rural, even looking a bit antiquated in places.

It’s quite unlike the tabletop flatness and expansive views you get when heading up Route 127 above Greenville. Here, there’s an unsettled roll to the land, a roughness and lack of tonsured tidiness. Various corners and pockets are unkempt, as if all the wildness of the place has yet to be squeezed out.

Whenever I’m up this way, I often stop by a certain farm to check on the little stream which transects the property that’s owned by a couple of friends.

In case you’re wondering — that’s what we stream-angling incorrigibles do in winter. We must assuage our longings by looking and dreaming. Our beloved creeks and rivers are locked under a mantle of ice…so a fisherman’s gotta do what a fisherman’s gotta do!

This particular stream is a feeder branch of the Whitewater River. Really just a modest brook, it’s fishable and surprisingly productive — providing you keep your expectations reasonable. Any smallmouth bass over a foot in length is a dandy.

Snow was peppering down the morning I chose to visit. I had to squint as I followed the old tractor lane back to the creek.

There wasn’t much to see. Pools were capped and invisible under a layer of white ice. Only a few riffles remained open, and the water glopped and gurgled as it sought a downstream path between the rocks.

I stared awhile and tried to not think how long it would be before violets bloomed along the banks, redwings again called from the willows, and the little stream would be open and inviting — sparkling in a warm spring sun.

A tongue of icy meltwater trickled down my neck, under my collar and along my spine. I shivered, gave my shoulders a quick brush and made a hasty retreat to the shelter of a nearby woods.

When I entered the timber it was like stepping inside a snug room. I noticed an immediate silencing of the northerly wind which had been carrying the snow on its chilly breath.

The woods were a mix of hardwoods. Lots of maple and hickory. A few walnuts. Several stout beech. Many of the oaks still sported leaves, brown and dried, the last stubbornly clinging remnant of a long-gone autumn.

Undergrowth was minimal, giving the place an open, parklike appearance.

One of the big old beeches provided a handy seat at its root base. I settled down and leaned back against the smooth, four-foot diameter bole.

In the cozy winter quietude, I could hear the chirrups and brief whistles of various birds. Doubtless stirred by the passing front with its snow and dropping temperatures, they were out and about — on the feed and busily foraging. A winter bird doesn’t carry much reserve on its flesh. Internal furnaces must be stoked daily to insure survival.

Within minutes, a nuthatch flew in to land on a dead ash a dozen yards from where I sat. I like nuthatches — they’re friendly, inquisitive, and not easily spooked.

The nuthatch on the ash tree was a white-breasted — the most common species in our part of Eastern North America. Red-breasted nuthatches do appear hereabouts on occasion, especially during the winter, or where there are large pine plantings nearby. Additionally, southeastern states have brownheaded nuthatches.

White-breasted nuthatches are easily recognized by their frequent yank-yank-yank nasal calls.

My visiting nuthatch sported a black cap. This meant it was a male; females have gray caps. Its back was slate gray, face and underparts white except for the lower belly near the base of the tail, which was a soft chestnut.

All nuthatches characterized by their build — large heads, strong bills, powerful feet, and short, squared-off tails.

They feed on nuts, seeds, and grain during the winter, adding insects as they find them. Like woodpeckers, nuthatches regularly forage in a herky-jerky manner, though without employing their stubby tails for bracing.

But even the most agile woodpecker is no match for a nuthatch when it comes to wandering head-first down a tree, or ambling upside-down along the underside of a limb.

The dapper little nuthatch eventually flew off. I figured I’d already sat too long on that beech’s lap and arose, stiffly and eliciting the usual litany of pains and protests from various arthritic joints.

I’m not complaining because time spent outdoors, whatever the weather or discomfort, is still worthwhile — a bargain for which I’ll gladly pay the price. Water, woods and nuthatches will always make me happy.