Songbird blends with the woods
Northwoods Notebook — Brown creepers absent from local Christmas Bird Count
While this is not an uncommon bird, it can be a challenge to find.
This is not a good photo, but it does show how unobtrusive the brown creeper can be — it also stuck to interior trees, on a cloudy day, so lighting was less than ideal.
This little songbird blends in so well with the bark that it can be easily missed but for the subtle movements as it climbs, or when it finally takes flight. A check of the 2018 Christmas Bird Count list for Dickinson County in mid-December showed no brown creepers on the tally, despite having experienced people out in the field.
Brown creepers seem like an interesting mishmash of several other avian species — bill and plumage like a wren, long and stiff tail it uses for support like a woodpecker, plays “Spiderman” on tree trunks like a nuthatch. Unlike the nuthatches, however, the brown creeper almost always begins foraging at the base of the tree, winding around as it works its way up headfirst before flying to the bottom of the next tree, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America website.
Yet for all that it shares in looks and behavior to other birds, the brown creeper is the only member of its family in North America, though the Eurasian treecreeper is related and very similar in appearance, according to Cornell.
That long, curved bill is ideal for poking under the bark for spiders and insects, as are the long, curved claws for hanging on as it climbs.
They are considered a year-round species in the Upper Peninsula and likely breed here as well, although not surprisingly you’d be hard-pressed to spot a nest — the creepers find a space between trunk and loose bark on a dead or dying tree to set up a “hammock” of nesting materials that can include spider egg cases, hair, feathers and moss and lichens. The latter two, along with the bird’s mottled coloration, make for perfect camouflage against the bark.
It has struggled at times due to deforestation and the removal of dead and dying trees, but brown creeper populations are thought to be on the upswing in northern hardwood forests, perhaps in reaction to the rise of some native and invasive pests, according to Cornell.
The list of insects and larvae they’ll consume sounds like they’d be generally beneficial birds to have around: stinkbugs, fruit flies, gnats, beetles, weevils, bark beetle parasitoids, butterflies, moths, lacewings, caddisflies, scale insects, leafhoppers, katydids, flat-bugs, plant lice, ants, and sawflies, according to Cornell, along with spiders, spider eggs and pseudoscorpions.
Somewhat surprisingly, in winter they have been known to visit suet and even seed feeders, Cornell states, although I’ve never seen one on either, though it would have to muscle aside the almost steady flow of woodpeckers for a chance at the suet.
But it does raise the possibility of catching at least a glimpse of this unique bird.
Going back to the Christmas Bird Count in Dickinson County, I was surprised to see a lone red-headed woodpecker among the double-digit numbers of downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers that made the usual appearance in the annual tally.
While at least the males of all of those species have a touch of red, only the red-headed is completely covered with the color from crown to where the neck reaches the boldly marked black and white body.
The habitat in the Upper Peninsula is not ideal for the red-headed woodpecker, which favor nut-and fruit-producing trees and more open areas, such as oak savanna. They are thought to have taken a hit when chestnut blight all but wiped out American chestnut trees, once one of the most common varieties in the eastern forests, according to Cornell.
They are among the species of concern on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, with a population decline of 70 percent from 1966 to 2014, Cornell states.
So let’s hope the appearance on the count might signal a rebound for this flashy bird.
Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or firstname.lastname@example.org.