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Pity the Brown Creeper. A prisoner of the forest, the creeper seems unable to escape the gravitational pull of the tree trunk on which it creeps, ever upward, gleaning insects, spiders, and their eggs along the way.
Rarely does the creeper fly free or far like the warbler, or even the woodpecker with whom it shares life on the bark. The brown creeper is generally considered a “permanent resident” of our forests – like the trees themselves, stuck here year-round. Squirrels and forest moths are more ambitious in their travels.
Or so it might seem.
One fall, on Maine’s Monhegan Island, brown creepers tumbled at dawn from the skies like autumn leaves (which they resemble). They crept on front lawns, on cedar shakes, and on trees scattered throughout the forest. These voyagers from the north help shatter our tidy notions about birds that either stick around or migrate. Birds sometimes do both.
Sorting out which creepers migrate and which remain isn’t so easy, mostly because creepers seem to get little respect — or, at least, attention — from ornithologists. Perhaps because creepers are so cryptic, we know relatively little about their breeding biology, including territory requirements, and their population trends.
What we do know about creeper migration reveals a hodgepodge of movement to and from breeding grounds across North America. Eastern and northern creeper populations, particularly those breeding across eastern Canada, seem most inclined to migrate. A creeper banded in Ontario later turned up 545 miles away in North Carolina. Another banded in Massachusetts flew 262 miles to New Jersey. Elsewhere on the continent, creepers might migrate only longitudinally (generally east or west) or alttitudinally (dropping in elevation for winter); southern populations seem to be sedentary or to move only short distances.
This kind of mixed migration pattern isn’t so unusual among birds. Red-tailed hawks breeding here in the Northeast, for example, either over-winter not too far away or leave us for short periods. Red-tails from farther north sometimes migrate here to spend at least a portion of the winter with our year-round hawks.
So what about the brown creepers now creeping around your woods? Migrants or residents? Who knows? Finding one is hard enough. Among the most widespread forest birds on the continent, creepers are nonetheless inconspicuous. To find one, your best bet is to go spishing, as we call the practice of mimicking the scold or warning notes of wrens and a few other songbirds by repeating, “Spshsh-spshsh spshsh-spshsh. Psssp-psssp-psssp-psssp-psssp.”
Creepers are suckers for spishing.
Creepers are suckers for spishing. When it works, usually a lone bird will fly in, land low on a tree trunk, and work its way upward. Once your creeper gets high enough, it will fly to the base of a nearby tree to repeat its unique foraging pattern. No other bird gleans like a creeper, the lone member of its family (Certhiidae) here in North America.
If you’ve been seeing creepers this past winter, they may soon depart for points north — if they’re migrants, that is. But fear not, other creepers may arrive to take their place. I think of March and April — sugaring season — as creeper season here in the Northeast. It could be that we encounter more creepers this time of year because they’re migrating through. More likely, we find more creepers because they begin to vocalize.
For some of us, hearing a brown creeper is like hearing tree bark. The tumbling notes are thin and high enough to be inaudible to certain people (yeah, okay, to “older” people like me). But if you manage to detect the creeper’s small, sweet, tinkling song, your bird is advertising for a mate and will probably stick around for the season.
As best we can tell, creepers don’t sing much during migration. So a brown creeper singing now is one of the first signs that spring is indeed creeping our way.
Note: This is my regular column in Northern Woodlands magazine.
Hi Bryan, thank you for this splendid, heartwarming article and the photo. The first and only time I saw a brown creeper was the last time I visited NYC, in October, and will not forget it. As we were walking in the street from Penn Station to our hotel, I suddenly turned around and saw it clinging on my bag, probably for some minutes already. Out of thin air indeed! My wife held it in her hands and we walked for a few blocks like this towards Central Park, intending to take it there. After it had rested enough, it came back to life and flew to -and climbed- the nearest tree. Magical! Left us smiling. Many thanks again for the article and your suggestions on cameras,
Yours is among the most wonderful comments I’ve ever received on the blog. What a wonderful experience. Yes, “out of thin air.” Thanks so much. You’ve made my day! 🙂
I was with you for that creeper fallout on Monhegan. Probably confirmed my belief that they are slightly magical birds, suddenly appearing almost silently, usually in the forest, and then gone. My hearing is holding up so I can still hear them. Mark’s is not, but he can usually see them before I do. Out here in the PNW, it’s an odd day to not see them when we’re deep in the woods. Could be my favorite songbird.
Oh, how I wish we were back there on Monhegan seeing them again! It’s been much, much too long. 🙁
Thanks, Bryan for this article. Creepers have long fascinated me. We have had one all winter on our sugar maple tree in the back yard. I never saw it fly to the tree though it would appear as if out of thin air and then do its rounds up and down and then around the tree in its search for insects. Perhaps it is in the tree all day, though I think I mostly see it in the afternoons. This is a tree where there is a beef suet feeder which may or may not be a factor. It’s never at the feeder but I wonder if it harvests some of the crumbs that fall from it. I always think of it as a good luck omen.
What a great way to characterize them, Abby — appearing out of thin air. Few birds get away with that! Good luck, indeed!
On the sunny and warm days late in the sugaring season, creeper’s songs are always a bonus as we’re gathering sap. And finding their inconspicuous nests tucked behind small sheets of flaking bark later in May is an even better bonus. One of my favorite neighbors, Bryan. Thanks for this article-
Should be happening with the next rains!
Great article, Bryan! My only experience with a Brown Creeper was on a January day in my backyard in Columbia County, New York, when area bird watchers were visiting to see my rare Bullocks Oriole & noticed one on the trunk of a tree. Otherwise, I would have missed it!
Thanks, Barbara. I’m hearing lots of them now!