A READER wrote to me with an enquiry about nuthatches. Having recently seen one in his Clackmannanshire garden he wondered how common they are and whether the bird is now a resident in this part of the country.

It was a good question and the arrival of nuthatches to the Wee County is something I first noticed a couple of years ago when they started appearing on my garden bird table.

They are certainly most welcome visitors, and attractive too, being about the size of a plump sparrow with a plumage mix of slate-grey, buff and chestnut.

Until a few decades ago nuthatches had only been sparingly recorded in Scotland, despite being relatively common in England.

Then, in the late 1980s something remarkable happened. The number of records increased, and the first breeding occurred in the Scottish Borders. The nuthatch has spread rapidly northwards since and is now well established in Clackmannanshire.

It has a most wonderful piercing song that really catches the attention; a liquid-flowing repertoire fit for any choir, featuring an incredible range of ringing notes including one melody that is similar to a boy whistling.

The poet John Clare described the song as a "long and loud continued noise" that "often stops the speed of men and boys".

The nuthatch is similar to a small dumpy woodpecker, but unlike a woodpecker it can crawl down a tree trunk headfirst, its sharp grasping claws providing perfect grip and its long bill ideal for searching the nooks and crannies of the bark for insects.

Nuthatches nest in tree holes, but if the hole is too big, it will plaster the edges with mud, thus reducing the size of the entrance so that the bird can just squeeze in.

This helps protect the nestlings and prevents other larger bird species from using the hole for their own nesting purposes, given that there is often competition for such sites.

As well as invertebrates, the nuthatch is fond of nuts and seeds, which it often fixes into a crevice in the bark and hammers away until it extracts the kernel.

The name nuthatch can be traced back to the old English 'notehache', which is derived from 'nut' and 'hack'. Another delightful country name is 'mud stopper', a reference to its mud plastering activities.