Monday, December 8, 2008

Bark Bird

Many species of birds use bark in one way or another: foraging for food, using the bark for nests, or storing food in crevices in the bark. Brown Creepers, however, are the ultimate bark bird. They forage almost exclusively on tree trunks and place their nests behind loose slabs of bark. They are well-designed for a life of crawling up tree trunks: their mottled brown plumage hides them from predators, their sharp claws allow them to grip the bark, their stiffened tail feathers support their bodies as they hitch up trees, and with their fine, curved bills they probe for insects in crevices of the bark.

This makes Brown Creepers extremely difficult to locate. To make matters worse, they have weak voices, only occasionally uttering a high-pitched little squeak that is easily missed. I remember the thrill of finding my first creeper in my Michigan backyard many years ago. I spent hours watching with fascination the mouse-like birds jerking up the large tree trunks. I've always had a soft spot for Brown Creepers, and I've missed them since moving to California, where they are few and far between. So, I was understandably overjoyed to find one of these charming birds this morning at Irvine Regional Park.

This morning was a fairly standard winter morning at Irvine Regional Park. It was a bit nippy, but the birds didn't seem to mind; plenty of common species were frolicking through the treetops. This fall has been a bit disappointing there, as I've found little of interest despite carefully searching. I locked my bike to a light post and quickly located a colorful Red-breasted Sapsucker busily drilling away at the trunk of a sweet gum tree. I wandered about, enjoying the common birds (I get an intangible magical feeling whenever getting good looks at the residents such as Spotted Towhees and Western Scrub-Jays), but finding nothing unusual. It was shaping up to be one of those regular days that blend together.

A strange sight stopped my in my tracks as I was loping across the park: a small, dark chunk of bark crawling up the side of a sycamore trunk. This was another of those cases in which I knew exactly what the bird was before lifting my binoculars. It simply had to be a Brown Creeper. The bird edged out from behind a branch, revealing itself to be a very lovely Brown Creeper. I sprinted over, reminded of how much I love these guys.

I watched, enthralled, while it would probe around in a tree until it darted to the base of another, giving a few weak tsee notes as it flew. In flight, Brown Creepers show a bold buffy wing band. I was lucky enough to capture it with its wings spread, showing this band.

I spent fifteen minutes observing the creeper. Eventually, I was forced to turn my back on it and head home or face a ruffled mom. Brown Creepers defiantly (inside joke, not a spelling error, thank you very much) rank among my top ten favorite birds. Please don't ask me to name the other nine - I'll have a tough time thinking of the couple hundred other species that vie for that position.

To make the sighting even more exciting, Brown Creeper is a new Bigby bird for me. One was present at the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery a scant half a mile down the road from my house all last winter, but I never managed to find it after December 28th of the year before. Number two hundred and thirty. Only a handful of possible new species remain, and all these would require long bike rides and a lot of effort. We'll see how it comes out.


Matt said...

how many miles have you totaled this year?

pohanginapete said...

An excellent post, Neil; the personal neatly combined with the informative. Here in New Zealand we have brown creepers, but they're a very different bird, belonging to the NZ endemic genus Mohoua. The nearest I've seen to your brown creeper was a wallcreeper, in the Indian Himalaya.

Beverly said...

Wow...wonderfully informative post; my favorite kind.

You should be proud of acomplished writer already!

Yes, I'll be back! Good on ya!

Neil Gilbert said...

Thanks guys! Matt, unfortunately I have no idea have many miles I have totaled. I have an odometer on only one of my bikes (the one I use less frequently... go figure). I've probably gone at least a thousand total, since after I couple months I racked up 400 miles on my less-frequently-used bike.