One of the species found in record numbers during the 2001 Juneau Christmas Bird Count held several weeks ago is a bird that often escapes notice even when searched for.
Since it is only 5 inches in length, cryptic brown in color, calls only softly and infrequently, and spends almost all its time slowly creeping up tree trunks, it is no wonder the new record Juneau Christmas Bird Count for the brown creeper is only 12. Although usually about two brown creepers are seen each year on the bird count, it sometimes is not seen at all, even though this species is probably fairly widespread in Juneau forests.
The brown creeper is found throughout most of the Lower 48 and also inhabits mountain forests as far south as Nicaragua. It is found in Alaska throughout Southeast and then along most of the Southcentral coast to Kodiak. In the Interior, it is rarely seen as far north as Fairbanks, but in the last few years there have been a few more reports from this area.
In the Juneau area, brown creepers can be found in both spruce-hemlock forests as well as mature deciduous woods. They usually are spotted when they fly down to the base of a tree and then start spiraling up the trunk probing under the bark for insects and spiders. Their high-pitched calls sometimes draw birders to their presence but some birders cannot even hear the calls.
In the winter, a brown creeper or two often accompanies flocks of kinglets or chickadees. This flocking of several species probably provides some measure of safety for all the birds in a flock as more eyes are on the lookout for predators.
Although the foraging habits of brown creepers resemble those of woodpeckers, they are not closely related. Brown creepers are also in a different family than red-breasted nuthatches, which also creep along tree trunks (although nuthatches also creep head first down trees). Brown creepers do share a similar habit with nuthatches in that they sometimes huddle in groups for warmth in tree cavities during cold winter nights. If alarmed, brown creepers will sometimes freeze motionless for minutes until the threat passes.
Brown creepers can sometimes be attracted to your backyard by smearing peanut butter onto the bark of a tree (spread with an upward motion as brown creepers feed by moving up from below). They occasionally are also attracted to suet. Good spots to search for brown creepers include woodlands near Sandy Beach in Douglas, the Outer Point Trail, and the trail beginning at Brotherhood Bridge. Groves of large spruce trees often seem to have a special attraction for brown creepers.
Some of the brown creepers seen in the Juneau area are probably migrants from more northerly breeding areas, but they do breed locally. During the mating season, the male selects a display tree and then repeatedly flies rapidly in a spiral up the tree trunk. Once a female is attracted, she then joins in this strange courtship ritual and also is sometimes fed by the male.
The cup-shaped nests are rarely located because they are usually concealed on a tree trunk behind overhanging slabs of bark or limbs. After a nest is built, it takes only about two weeks for the clutch of five to eight eggs to hatch and then the young fledge in about another 15 days.
Since the brown creeper feeds on large trees and needs large trees for nest sites, it is very dependent upon mature forests. Research indicates that this species is mostly absent from clearcut areas.
Given that this species is widespread throughout Southeast Alaska forests, there is very little danger that the overall population is threatened by logging. However, populations in local areas are certainly adversely impacted by logging and other development.
The record 2001 count for brown creepers in Juneau suggests at least a local increase in numbers, but comparison of Christmas Bird Counts over a number of areas is the best way to determine if the overall population or distribution of this species is changing.
Paul Suchanek is a local birder who works for the Division of Sport Fish in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He credits the use of ear protection to his ability to still hear brown creepers even though he has run outboards extensively.
Biologist Mike Jacobson will present a slide program about living in the Arctic coastal village of Kaktovik, adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, at the monthly meeting of Juneau Audubon Society 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School Library.