Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Elf of the Tree Trunks

Distantly I heard the ethereal, flute-like song of the Hermit Thrush and started in pursuit. The old forest lane breached a stone wall, a silent, moss-covered reminder that once this gentle hill top served different purposes. But that was long ago. Now it was all pine forest. Many years ago, 75 to 100 judging by their size, agriculture had been abandoned, and (perhaps with some human help) the forest had returned. Now red pines reached straight and tall. The dense green needle canopy overhead shaded the soft brown needle strewn ground.

Brown Creeper
I paused waiting for the thrush to sing again. In the quiet created by the still lifting fog of that early morning, I heard only the distant call of a Blue Jay, insects buzzing about my head, and a high, thin “sreeee.” The thrush was still silent, so I listened again to the “sreee.” At a different angle there was another “sreee.” Then another. It was still early morning, and my own mental fog had scarcely been chased off by coffee libations, but the repeated “sreee” finally penetrated. I turned my back on the silent thrush to look for the elusive little elf of the tree trunks, for I was quite certain that I was hearing the Brown Creeper.

The Brown Creeper winters in our region, and winter is when I usually manage to see it as it travels with mixed flocks of other wintering birds - flocks which may include chickadees, nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, or Golden-crowned Kinglets. But one could hardly call the Brown Creeper a gregarious or social bird, certainly not the way chickadees are. While other birds are busy and noisy, the Brown Creeper creeps silently up a tree trunk, searching for the food overlooked by the hasty habits of the others.

Brown Creeper
It is this quiet habit of climbing tree trunks that makes the Brown Creeper so difficult to see. Its mottled brown back blends into its background - usually the mottled bark of a tree trunk. Where other birds chatter and call in agitation when danger presents itself, the Brown Creeper opens its wings and stays perfectly still, becoming one with its tree, a mere bump on the upright log.

The high, thin “sreee” which caught my attention on this early summer morning sounds very much like the call of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. My rule of thumb is that a calling kinglet which remains unseen is a Brown Creeper.

The Brown Creeper climbs a tree, often spiraling around the trunk until it nears the top. Then he gives the bird watcher hoping to watch him a brief opportunity as he flutters to the bottom of another tree and begins to climb again. If he has happened to flutter to a nearby tree - rather than going deeper into the woods - and has landed on the facing side of the trunk, the bird watcher then has the opportunity to watch him “hitching his near-sighted way up a tree” (as Forbush put it).

But on this early summer morning in the open mature pine forest, I was hearing more than one Brown Creeper calling. And to my surprise I did not have to search long and patiently in order to locate the bird. In fact, I had the Brown Creeper in the plural. When I first put my binoculars on the tree where one had fluttered, I soon had a second one creeping upward in its “hitching way.”

Brown Creeper carrying food
One of the birds was carrying a bug in its thin, curved beak. Up one tree, and then another, and still it carried its bug. A third bird flew into view. A fourth called from my right, and I sensed there was at least one more hanging around. So many creepers in one place and so observable! Clearly, I had come upon one of two situations. Either there was courtship and pairing going on, or this was a family of parents and recently fledged young. I continued to watch.

Again, I saw food being carried, as though a parent was trying to give a visual example to a youngster, or that a youngster had found food and did not know what to do with it. Continually I sensed uncertainty in the creepers I was watching.

Young Brown Creepers are adept climbers as soon as they leave the nest; their flight skills take more time to be mastered. The birds I watched were adept climbers, but it seemed as though they did not know what they were supposed to be doing as they climbed - flutter to a tree - climb - flutter to another tree - climb - flutter - climb. Hey guys! You’re supposed to find weevils, beetles, insect eggs and pupae and eat them! I am sure there was lots of such food available to them, because there was plenty of insect food feeding on me.

A week later I was back on the wooded hilltop, but in another section of the mature pine forest. This time it was my intention to chase down the Hermit Thrush and maybe follow it to a nest or young. But again, the high thin “sreee” distracted me from my pursuit. The Brown Creeper, so elusive on so many birding forays, was busily creeping up the trunks of the straight red pines. I watched as two birds went up a tree; they seemed more sure of what they were about.

I followed one of the birds as it crept upward. Not once did it back down, the way a woodpecker might. It never descended head-first in the manner of a nuthatch. Observers who have seen a rare head-first descent describe it as awkward and ill-considered. The Brown Creeper is adapted to upward creeping; its long tail braces it as it climbs. Occasionally the one I followed ventured onto a branch, but returned soon to the more comfortable trunk.

Brown Creeper entering its nest
I watched a second creeper climbing a dead pine snag. Then it disappeared behind a behind a piece of loose bark. I was sure that behind the bark was hidden a shallow cup of twigs, moss and leaves. That is where the Brown Creeper hides its nest and raises its brood of 5 to 8 young. I continued watching as the creeper crept upward with a bug in its beak, disappear behind the bark, then reappear. It had fed young in its nest.

As I watched the Brown Creeper, the Hermit Thrush sang his other worldly song all around me. I’ll go looking for him another day. The elf of the tree trunks had captured my attention for the second time in a week.

Good Birding!


Chris said...

Excellent encounter Chris!!! Wonderful!! I think this is one of the most difficult bird to photograph just like the goldcrest ;-)

eileeninmd said...

Great pos ton the Brown Creeper. They are one of my favorite birds to see.


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