Creeping Beauty (1)

A tiny predator awakens me to unseen drama happening before my very eyes

It certainly sounds strange to hear myself say this, but for this experience on Nature’s Coast, I must “thank” the coronavirus. For absent the plague and quarantine, I would surely have been somewhere else, chasing something else — and thus could I have lived and died without ever really having seen a brown creeper at all.

Constrained near home base for months, I was slow to recognize the creepers among my mix of back yard birds. Of course I saw them, I knew they were there — but in truth, I didn’t really “see” them at all. It took awhile for them to fully creep into my consciousness.

At first they registered as little more to me than (with apologies for using overly scientific terminology here) “L Double Bs.” I know I’ll get hate mail for this, but my classification of “Little Brown Birds” envelops a fairly broad swath of indeterminate feathery wonders too “plain” or “common” to inspire my camera to power on and coax me to press record. But induced to look closer (because what else did I have during quarantine but too much time to do what else with?), it became apparent even to me that “The Secret Life of Little Brown Creepers” is a much more fascinating story than I ever imagined it could be.

My first clue came not from the birds themselves, in fact, but from the steady stream of detached insect wings spiraling downward from the spruce trees towering over my perch on my front porch. Had I discovered a species of insect, I wondered, that naturally sheds its wings during metamorphosis to some new form? Umm … no. As I delved deeper into the mystery swirling day after day in the breeze about me, it turned out that little brown creepers endeavor mightily to tear the wings off the bigger bugs they are endlessly creeping up the sides of trees to capture with remorseless dexterity before tenderizing and swallowing the bodies whole. Wait — what? Suddenly, my camera switched on.

As the video above shows, making a gullet-ready meal of a really big bug when you’re a tiny little bird requires significant effort. When I first observed this phenomenon the old fashioned way (i.e., with my eyes), the action unfolded too quickly, and I was too distant, to clearly see the action unfold. So I didn’t become completely, absolutely, utterly amazed until my camera allowed me to watch it all again — and again and again and again — in high-definition detail. Holy cow.

Lest the ultra-close close-ups in the video above mislead you, however, we should pause here a moment to consider my use of the technical phrase “really big bug.” While you will see many smaller, low-mass moths be inhaled easily wings-and-all in the two videos that follow, the bigger bugs that appear to be the creepers’ favorite quarry get special treatment. Often making the capture up high in the trees, the birds will fly their prey down to the ground, where they can quickly pick the bug back up after dropping it during their excited efforts to render it ingestible. Even with such efforts, the wings sometimes do not detach, and it can take several tries for the bird to succeed in swallowing one of these bigger bugs. But “big” here really is a relative term — as the freshly torn-off insect wings in the palm of my hand attest at the end of the video above, these appendages that appear so large on your screen courtesy of my zoom lens, in actuality barely equal the width of one of my fingers. And for a bird even smaller than a NUTHATCH, the diminutive brown creeper typically finds its favorite meal to be a very big gulp indeed.

I initially thought capturing this dramatic bug-catching aspect of a brown creeper’s daily life would be the pinnacle of the pandemic for me. But as the plague persisted, and time on my porch passed from days to weeks to months, I found myself learning more, and shooting more, than I ever dreamed an “L Double B” could warrant. The realization eventually arrived, however, that further effort would be needed to reflect the many other interesting aspects of a brown creeper’s secret life (e.g., creeping, wing stretching, chin scratching, yawning, preening, napping and whatever the heck is up with those gnarly feet!) that my eyes were at last open to see. If you’d like to see more, too, you’re in luck — simply CLICK HERE to view Video 2.

But Video 3 (did I just hear you gasp? CLICK HERE) I confess is my favorite. Encompassing more than “just a bird,” it reflects my dawning awareness that I was observing not only a petitely prodigious predator, but an amazing array of prey species as well, each playing its own role in a life and death game of hide and seek. The mind-bending assortment of other-worldly creatures that the creepers revealed to me, living unimagined among the countless cracks and crevices of the towering trees surrounding me, crept creepily into my nightly dreams.

Birds and bugs aside, this experience made me aware (yet again) of my own amazing ability to remain perfectly unaware of patently obvious natural phenomena unfolding in plain sight before my very eyes. A realization that leaves me wondering what else — since I was able so easily to overlook something so evident and intriguing as beautiful brown creepers hunting really big bugs in my own back yard — might I be missing right now?

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