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Trollopes Bird Notes

April 2020

Click for Trollope's February 2020 notes

For my next trick, I shall defy gravity

Charles Trollope on the remarkable upside-down activities of the Trecreeper In the middle of January, I was in the churchyard approaching the gate leading to Beadle Platt, when I noticed a movement in the oak tree overshadowing the gate. Whatever it was was moving dexterously on the underneath of a horizontal branch, well camouflaged, matching perfectly with the lichencovered branches.

There are only two birds that can feed on the underneath of boughs and they are the Nuthatch and the Treecreeper. Quite clearly this was a Treecreeper, the only small passerine with a decurved bill. While I watched it spent a good five minutes on this one large branch, interestingly always on the underside, travelling along as if gravity did not exist. Once it had reached the end it flew to another branch where it again landed on the underside.

Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris
Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris [By Stephen Message]

I was so intrigued I watched until the cold beckoned me to move on. It was an enchanting encounter. Normally a Treecreeper will fly to the bottom of the vertical trunk and spirally work its way, mouse-like, upwards, using its stiff tail feathers to give it extra support, although I am not sure if these stiff feathers help it to hold on the underside of branches. As I was walking down the hill to Iden Green I was wondering why it spent most of its time on the underside and I came up with theory that most other birds that search the trees for insects and invertebrates, for example tits, cannot hang on upside down. Therefore the underside has more food. I have no idea if this theory is correct but it kept me amused until I got home.

Treecreepers are easily missed as they are not very vocal, unlike their noisy Nuthatch relatives. Their call and song are both high pitched and easily missed unless pretty close by. There are about 250,000 pairs widely distributed across the British Isles, of which Kent has about 10,000. It is one of our most sedentary species, with the highest densities in its favoured woodland habitat, where it nests behind loose bark on trees. In the recent BBC Winterwatch in the Abernethy Forest, an infra-red camera picked up a Treecreeper roosting by jamming its tiny body firmly into a crack in the bark of a pine tree.

The only Treecreeper nest I have ever found was in a willow. I watched the bird enter and then went to inspect it, but there was no chance of seeing anything as the entrance was so tight that I was amazed the parent bird could get in - I assume they choose the narrowest entrance to keep predators like woodpeckers and squirrels out. Five to six eggs are normally laid, incubation is mainly done by the female but the young are fed by both sexes, and I think the nest must be very crowded just before the young fledge. Treecreepers are double brooded, sometimes using the same nest.

On the continent there is a second member of the same family called a Short-toed Treecreeper; which is virtually indistinguishable from its close cousin, with a slightly greyer plumage and a slightly longer bill. However, unlike our Treecreeper’s high, softly pitched call, its version is more like a Coal Tit. The Short-toed variety occur in the Channel Islands and very occasionally on our coastline. Birdwatchers on the Dungeness peninsula get quite excited if they see a Treecreeper, as it more than likely a Short-toed variety that has come over the Channel, since the treeless shingle habitat normally excludes our resident species.

Where the two species overlap in distribution on the Continent, the Short-toed occupies the lower altitudes while the other species prefers the higher altitudes, especially pine forests. The theory goes that when Britain separated from the Continent, the Shorttoed Treecreeper had not occupied the coniferous forests that were covering Britain at that time, whereas ‘ours’ was at home in the conifers. Over the years the British Treecreeper has adapted to the changing habitat and is now found in both broad-leaved woodland and coniferous, whereas the other has remained a chiefly coniferous species. Perhaps in another hundred years it might become a separate species, but at the moment the two are recognised as different sub-species.

Charles Trollope cetetal@btinternet.com

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