The migratory birds that flew into the Anchorage area this spring and early summer have mostly, if not entirely, departed and returned to assorted places around the globe, leaving behind the year-round, stay-at-home species.
While I greatly appreciate the presence of migrants, especially the songbirds that brighten our landscape with their songs, activity, and plumages, I hold a special affection for the species that stay through our coldest, darkest, and most challenging season. I love going on neighborhood strolls with Denali and listening to their voices and seeing their forms, an abiding presence even in deepest winter. Their company cheers me and lifts my spirits, enlivens the landscape.
While many resident species move in and out of my Turnagain neighborhood during the long months of winter, three species gain my attention nearly every day: black-capped and boreal chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. Now and then they’re joined by a fourth species that is common to Southcentral Alaska, but not nearly as abundant as either the chickadees or nuthatch: the brown creeper.
Weeks sometimes pass between my creeper sightings, but I’d bet that’s largely because they’re shyer, more secretive birds than their companions. They’re also masters at camouflage.
These small, brown- and gray-streaked birds spend much of their lives attached to—and blending with—the trunks of trees. As birding expert Kenn Kaufman has put it when describing the creeper family (which includes six species in all, five of them in Europe or Asia), “No other birds spend their lives in such intimate contact with tree bark.”
When still, creepers are almost impossible to spot. And when moving, Kaufman aptly notes, they resemble “a piece of bark come to life.”
In my experience, brown creepers that inhabit the local landscape seem to have a special attachment to cottonwoods, perhaps because they subsist primarily on insects and their eggs, even in winter, and the deeply furrowed trunks of cottonwoods are an excellent place for dormant insects to spend the season and also ideal for hiding pupae and eggs.
When hunting, a creeper spirals up the trunk of trees (and sometimes along their larger branches) bracing its body against the tree with long, stiff tail feathers while ascending slowly in a hop-stepping way and searching out prey with its eyes and slender, curved beak, which is used to probe any creases, cracks, or wrinkles in the bark.
Reaching the top of a tree, a creeper will typically fly to the base or lower section of a neighboring tree and resume its upward spiraling hunt.
Because creepers are little birds (just a bit bigger than chickadees) and so well camouflaged, and because their numbers are small—I never have seen more than one or two at a time—it’s easiest to discover their presence by listening for their voices.
It helps if you can hear high-pitched sounds, because creepers have one of the highest-pitched, “reedy” calls in the forest, variously described in the guidebooks that I own as either a see-see or ts-ts sound. I’ve often found it hard to locate the bird even after hearing its call or song. Sometimes the creeper seems to “throw” its voice, which comes from one direction, then another. Perhaps the sounds are simply produced by two hidden birds speaking to each other.
Kaufman reports that creepers will supplement their insect diet by eating suet or peanut butter mixtures, but I’ve rarely seen the birds at my feeders, even when I know they’re present in the neighborhood.
When spring returns, males will sometimes “perform rapid twisting flights around trees” to impress female birds, according to Kaufman, though this too is something I haven’t witnessed.
When nesting, creepers continue to stay close to the trunks of trees, typically placing nest materials—moss, leaves, bark strips, twigs, and more—in tiny “half cups” behind bark slabs that have separated from the tree. I once discovered a brown creeper nest inside a long and narrow vertical crack along the trunk of a cottonwood. I made the discovery only because I happened to hear and then spot the bird, and spied it entering the hidden nest site.
Whether in the brightness of summer or the depths of winter, it’s always a special treat to discover the nearby presence of a creeper (or two), perhaps because these tree-hugging birds tend to move through local forests unnoticed by us humans, while going about their largely secretive lives.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.