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Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Brown Creeper

Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Brown Creeper

One of the unexpected pleasures of the COVID year has been the opportunity to pay more attention to the birds around our homes. Last week someone mentioned to me a small brown bird he had noticed on a tree outside his window. It had a thin, slightly decurved bill, he said, and he wondered if it might be a wren of some sort. I seriously doubted that possibility, thought a moment, then remembered a bird of similar description that I had spotted on the trunk of a bur oak outside our bedroom that very week: a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). When I showed my friend the species in a field guide, he agreed that it was the bird he had seen.

Actually, it’s a bit late for Brown Creeper sightings in the Barrington area. They appear most often during spring and fall migration, especially in the months of April and October. But some do linger in this latitude, especially when the temperatures are mild as they have been this fall, and may continue all winter.

The Brown Creeper is well named: it’s brown (with white underparts) and its distinctive habit is to creep up tree trunks in spiral fashion, braced by its long, spiny tail, and foraging in bark crevices for insects. Once it has crept sufficiently far – and I’m not sure how that is determined! – it flies to the base of a nearby tree trunk and starts the process all over again.

It is so very easy to miss the bird. It is cryptically colored, that is, it bears plumage that gives it excellent camouflage against the trunk of a tree. Over the years I have developed a special affection for the species because the challenge of spotting it makes success especially sweet. This year I have seen more creepers than I ever recall. I doubt that it’s a matter of a larger population, but rather that I am paying more attention to bird activity.

Two family encounters with Brown Creepers are rooted in my memory. The first occurred when our son was two. He was mastering words that began with b – baby, boy, ball, bird. He pointed out the window from his seat in a high chair one morning to a nearby tree. An uncle who was in the room asked, “What is it, Merritt?”, expecting him to say “bee”, his word for bird. But Merritt shot back immediately, “Bwown Creepuh!” The uncle was impressed, and so was I. The surprising response ignited a happy thought that perhaps we had a young ornithologist in the making.

The second incident took place about three years ago with the younger daughter of the same son. She has a genuine interest in birds and we often take walks together to see what avian neighbors we can find near her Oregon home. On one of those outings through a moist woodland, she spotted movement low in the vegetation. I thought it was probably a Pacific Wren. We stopped and waited and in a few seconds the bird emerged from behind what looked like bark on the tree trunk. It was not a wren but a Brown Creeper. We watched it fly away and return and disappear behind the bark several times. I suspected we were watching nesting activity. I did some research that afternoon and found that, in fact, the Brown Creeper often does nest behind loose bark on trees. From that special discovery in our granddaughter’s neighborhood woodland, the species has become one of our favorite birds.

The Brown Creeper is not known to nest in the Barrington area, though there are breeding records from nearby locales such as Ryerson Woods and Kankakee. But as a regular, though uncommon, winter visitor, it’s a species to stay alert for – not in the air, not on the ground, nor even usually on a tree limb, but silently spiraling its way up the side of a mature oak or hickory.

About Wendy Paulson

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles Wendy has authored in our Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.

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