Northland Nature: Brown creepers blend into forest

Jan. 27—Temperatures for the first half of the month of January were far above normal. It seems like the readings have avoided the extremes of both warmth and cold; many days were of what we would call mild. Snowfall has been above normal in some parts of the region. Many sites in the Northland recorded more than a foot of snow early in the month. Despite the mild temperatures, not a lot of melting has taken place. The white coat is staying with us.

The birds have been regular visitors to the bird feeder. Typically, the arrivals are a regular eight species: black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers. A few goldfinches have also come by, but sporadically.

These winter feeders are all permanent residents who reside here throughout the year. They nested and raised families during the warm months.

Though they usually dine on seeds at this time, they had to change their diets in order to remain in the region for the winter. Last summer, they mostly fed on insects, adults and larvae, but switched to seeds in the cold.

It is interesting to note that on mild winter days, they often will not come to the feeders. This is a reminder that they really do not need our handouts to survive winter. We may need them more than they need us. They can find meals elsewhere. This may mean seeds from wild plants, but it can also include finding insects to eat.

A few kinds of crane flies are active on mild winter days and birds may find them. Also, woodpeckers, digging into the trees, locate insects in winter. Nuthatches go down tree trunks headfirst and can find bugs in cracks of the bark. And recently, I looked out to see the arrival of another insect-eating bird on a January day: a brown creeper.

Some names of some birds are a bit hard to understand, but the brown creeper is well-named. The upper body part, back sides and tail are brown. Even though the undersides are white, when seen from behind as it climbs (creeps) up the trunk of a tree, it is very camouflaged because it is hard to observe on the bark.

Blending in as it does, we are not likely to see these small birds, who are usually alone. While several kinds of chickadees and nuthatches can be found in this country, the brown creeper is the only one in its family of birds.

About the size of chickadees or nuthatches and with excellent camouflage, these birds go about the feeding often unnoticed. While nuthatches go down a tree headfirst, these diminutive birds go up. A typical feeding pattern is to start low on a tree and work its way up, often in a spiral route, higher in the trees and then dropping down to begin again at the base of another tree, using their tail to prop up the body.

They are probing with their thin, curved beaks to wedge into cracks on the bark so they can dislodge and feed on what is here: insects and spiders. And yes, there are insects and spiders present.

Brown creepers may give a "see" type of call as they move. A song of more syllables may be heard later in the season.

Though absent from the Carlton County Christmas Bird Count, they are common birds. Never abundant, brown creepers are seen nearly every winter and let us know that insect-eating birds can survive the cold.