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Nature Nut: Can you spot a brown creeper?

December 17, 2018

I can’t remember the first one I saw, but I am quite sure it was early on in my years at Quarry Hill, so somewhere in the ’80s. That means I had gone through almost 40 years without seeing or even knowing this unusual little bird existed.

Fortunately, as I read more about this only North American representative of the “treecreeper” family, I got the impression I wasn’t alone. Besides being small, it is considered one of the most inconspicuous birds around. And although some of the creeper’s behavior is similar to that of nuthatches and woodpeckers, its plumage and feeding habits make them quite different.

As the name implies, this tiny bird is brown in color, although it has a white breast and chin which are not too obvious when it is doing its “creeping.” Its back, with patchy shades of brown, tan, and white, tends to camouflage it almost perfectly with its preferred habitat, the bark of trees. And, not only does it “creep,” it also seems to flow over the bark as if legless, often making one wonder if it is just a displaced leaf or piece of bark on the move.

In many locales across the country, forests allowed to continue maturing have resulted in increased habitat for these birds. But, in other areas, population numbers are threatened due to the harvesting of large, live trees, salvage-logging that removes dead or dying trees, or increasing fragmentation of forests.

I am guessing I have maybe seen no more than 30 brown creepers, mostly during my years at Quarry Hill, and I probably caught and banded about half of those. In hand, they would often make a high-pitched call, presumably indicating their displeasure with being held. I don’t remember getting any pecks from their delicate looking beaks, adapted for probing under bark for small insects, spiders, or other invertebrates.

I can’t recall ever seeing more than one brown creeper at a time. So, it was not a knee-jerk reaction when I immediately doubted my friend Libby Kappel, who called me and said she had about 30 of them on branches of a tree in her backyard. Checking out the site later, I was amazed she saw them from her bird-viewing chair, a distance of more than 50 yards.

I know Libby watches a lot of birds that come to her “buffet” of feeders, and recognizes most. But, I took her to task right away, until she described the birds’ beaks as long, slender, and curved downward. And since I, like many of you, also know Libby likes to talk a lot, I figured I could check this out on my computer while listening to her.

Sure enough, I found a couple websites that indicated while solitary most of the year, during winter those that live in northern latitudes will tend to fly in groups of their own, as well as other species. So that, along with Libby’s beak description, required I apologize for doubting her.

Oddly enough, a week later, talking with friend Jim Hair, he also told me he had seen groups of brown creepers from his deer stand, verifying what Libby had told me.

One of the interesting things I learned about brown creepers is their habit of making hammock-like nests behind loose pieces of bark. The nests, made of bark strips and twigs, may be glued together with insect cocoons and spider egg cases. I was anxious to find out if any of the birding photographers on my favorite bird chat group had ever photographed one of these nests.

So, if you haven’t seen a brown creeper before, challenge yourself with some observation time in the Quarry Hill Bird Room. Or, better yet, get into a mature woods, sit still, and watch for something brown “creeping” up the bark of a tree. If you are successful, make sure to let me know. And, if anyone can show me a creeper nest, a prestigious award will be forthcoming.

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