There is a novel member of the bird kingdom who blends in so perfectly to its environment that few non-birders know about it. I am happy to share a recent encounter.
The brown creeper is relatively small, and is almost always found on trees. They are a woodland songbird. The bird’s back is primarily black and brown with textured patterning, and it camouflages into the tree bark so remarkably that seeing it is nearly impossible.
An insect-eating bird, they have a slender decurved bill perfect for digging into tree bark and plucking out beetles, aphids, caterpillars, ants, spiders and others.
Much like a nuthatch, they make their way up a tree in a spiral pattern, then flutter back to the bottom of the next tree and repeat the same spiraling hunt. The fluttering moment is usually the only time you really see them. They use their stiff tails for support and are consequently adept at foraging upside down.
They have a sound too, but it is very high-pitched and often muted by louder creatures. Click here to hear.
One day last month, Athena and I hiked through the forest on our morning walk. It was nesting time in the forest.
That morning we had already checked on the raven nest, the bluebird nest, and the Pacific-slope flycatcher nest.
While Athena was photographing, I noticed some unusual brown creeper behavior and my eyes followed an adult going to an obscure crack in the bark of a California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica) tree.
Then she vanished into the crack.
In that moment I heard the characteristic sound of hungry cheeping nestlings being fed, and knew I had found a creeper nest.
We watched a few minutes more and realized the nest was safely wedged behind the bark of this towering bay tree.
For days we watched the nest, and each new day the voices of the nestlings became stronger. Visions of new creepers danced in our heads.
Then one morning we came out and saw part of the trunk had crashed down in the night. The nest. Oh no, the nest.
This forest was severely damaged in wildfires. Many of the surviving trees look like they’re fine, but often a limb will just drop. Or sometimes a tree looks like it’s recovering and growing, and then one day the whole thing keels over.
Before the fires, this bay tree was an admirable one–huge and strong with multiple trunks. But you can see it has suffered from the fires, bark has lifted from the tree or fallen off in several places; it’s not as mighty as it once was. But it’s great for creepers, who like the rippled bark for nesting.
We studied the damage and soon realized the trunk piece that had fallen was separate from the nest.
So our hearts once again lifted.
Here you can see freshly ripped wood (left trunk) and a large hunk on the ground underneath (lower center). An arrow indicates where the nest is.
We stood there in anticipation, waiting to see if the parent was still tending the nest…and she was. They might have had a roller coaster night with the big next-door trunk cracking and dropping, but the nest remained safe.
Coyote, bobcat and fox come through on this trail regularly. We find new scat and fresh divots every morning, so a nest loaded with defenseless babies on the ground could have been disastrous.
Another day while we were photographing the creeper nest, a dark-eyed junco started scolding and harassing the parent creepers.
We soon discovered that the juncos had a nest, too, hidden in a hole beside a big rock that we were clambering around to see the creepers. We moved away and then all was well again.
As the month of June unfolded, the creeper voices continued to become even stronger.
Then one magical morning it happened.
The nestlings had become so developed that their little heads were starting to poke out of the bark. Both parents were industriously catching insects and delivering them to the nest. With binoculars, we could see their little heads.
One parent would arrive, present the insect, then fly off; and soon the other parent would do the same, and this continued for at least a half hour. It was a dizzying pace.
This parent has a spider in its bill, taking it to the nest.
At one point there was a slight pause in the delivery, and the voices raised to a louder, more emphatic volume as the impatient nestlings were forced to wait a few extra minutes.
And then one of the little chicks suddenly, and quite naturally, emerged out of the nest and started plodding up the tree.
Two siblings watched while the eldest left the nest.
Soon another sibling left…and then there was one.
Then all three were out. There was quite a bit of commotion, with their high-pitched peeping and the parents trying to keep up, flying after them and catching insects. We were all very excited.
The fledglings did not venture too far, but now they were learning to fly and feed and make their way around independently.
This fledgling was learning how to use its still-short tail to balance.
One tyke tumbled off an oak limb, but it extended its wings in a desperate struggle and landed softly. It was fine.
We think there might have been a fourth nestling, it seemed there was shadowy activity inside the tree bark crevasse. But that day it did not show itself.
And the next day when we returned, there were no creepers, nor have there been any since then. They have all moved on.
It was fortunate we were there at the right time to watch this nest full of baby birds on their maiden flights fledging into the forest.
You just never know where or when a miracle is going to happen.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.