An appreciation

Brown Creeper [photo: courtesy Macphail Woods]
Brown Creeper [photo: courtesy Macphail Woods]

This winter has been very up and down weather wise, with everything from unseasonably warm, sunny conditions to frigid, hide-in-your house wind storms. And just about everything in between. There are lots of irregular bird visitors around as well. The Baltimore Oriole that I mentioned in last month’s column is still around, and there are a fair number of Northern Cardinals showing up at people’s feeders.

One bird that is hanging out in the Tea Hill area is not uncommon, but it is always a pleasure to see. It will visit feeders, though we have none up at the present.  But it seems to love gleaning insects from the birch trees in the yard.

From a distance, there is nothing special about creepers. The colours don’t jump out at you, and you often just get a glancing look at it, flitting from branch to branch. Its song, though quite melodious, is soft and not always easy to pick out.

As with many birds, though, a closer look is really worth the effort. Good binoculars do the trick, but I was very fortunate to have banded some at the Macphail Woods banding station. They are delicate birds, smaller than a Black-capped Chickadee, and less round. From above, the feathers are an appealing blend of brown, white, black and blue. From below, the underparts are mostly white. It has a slender, curved bill, ideal for digging out insects from the bark of trees. Similar to woodpeckers, the tail feathers are quite long and stiff, which help these birds work their way up the tree when feeding.

Our two native nuthatches—Red-breasted and White-breasted—mostly fly to the top and work their way down a tree, feeding as they go. A Brown Creeper takes a different tact, spiralling up a tree in search of food. That is actually a good way to pick them out. You’ll notice a small, indistinct bird flitting about, but when it starts circling and moving up the tree, you’ll know it is a creeper.

I remember in the early years of Macphail Woods I was out with a group looking for birds. I could hear a creeper singing and tried to find it. It was quite magical to see a mating display, where on a quite-low branch a male creeper brough food to its mate. Very delicate, and at least to my eyes, very loving. A short while later, one of the group excitedly said “I saw the creeper fly up under that bark!”  

It was my introduction to creeper nests, another part of my forest education. The bark was a small patch hanging on to a dead balsam fir tree. Until then, I had never really paid attention to these dead trees (or “snags”) except to look for woodpecker nests. Several times I had visited properties with landowners who would push these trees over, thinking they were doing something good by cleaning up their forest. I knew at the time that this wasn’t a good thing to be doing, unless the particular tree posed a threat. I knew the trees weren’t harming anything, and would provide excellent habitat for woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and other species of birds.

But the creepers also made great use of these trees. Underneath the loose bark, they tucked in grasses made a nest that was out of the weather. Which I think is ingenious. 

I now have an even deeper appreciation of Brown Creepers and snag trees. It is wonderful how much you can learn about nature just from paying attention.