Sigrid Sanders
winter woods
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Feeding flocks like this are common in the winter months, mixed species of small birds that travel together while foraging for food. The reasons different species move together like this are not known for sure, but it may simply be that there's safety in numbers - giving them somewhat greater protection from predators. Usually led by chickadees and titmice here, they also typically include Downy Woodpeckers, kinglets, nuthatches, and sometimes Yellow-rumped Warblers, Pine Warblers and other small birds.

Among them I could see and hear two Brown-headed Nuthatches, small birds with gray back, white breast and belly, short tail, brown head, a long, sharp bill, and an endearing white spot on the nape of the neck. They moved briskly along branches, inspecting one side, then another, often upside down, sometimes probing into a cluster of pine needles or a pine cone. Their lively chatter that sounds like a child's squeaky toy makes it always sound like a party when they're around. The classic nuthatch pose is facing downward on a trunk and raising the head with its over-sized bill to look up - and they do that a lot - but they also may work their way up a trunk or around it, using the long bill to probe under the bark. And they often take a seed or something to a branch or a stub and sit there to hammer on it and crack it open.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are said to be among the few bird species known to use tools, using pine bark chips to pry off other bark chips while searching for food.[5] I've never seen them do that, but it seems in keeping with their generally sharp, inquisitive and rather aggressive behavior for such little things. They're year-round residents in the southeastern U.S. and not uncommon in pine woodlands or second-growth mixed woodlands like this, but I can't remember ever seeing more than two or three at a time, and so I think there were not large numbers of them here. Their populations have been declining throughout their range - limited to the southeastern U.S. and a small and diminishing population in the Bahamas - because of habitat degradation and loss.

Their year-round presence here seems to me another point in favor of protecting second-growth woodlands like these. Not only are they the old-growth forests of the future, but they also provide valuable wildlife habitat at just about every stage of their growth - from old abandoned field, through weeds, small trees and scrub, to pines, mixed forest and on.

I was watching the nuthatches when the movement of something else on the trunk of a pine caught my eye. A small, rather flat, mottled dark brown and white bird was scuttling up the trunk, stopping to pry under the plates of the bark with a long, thin, sharp, curved bill, looking more like a large insect, in the way that it moved, than a bird. A Brown Creeper. Moving very close to the trunk, it seemed to have no legs, though of course it does - it crept - and its intricately patterned dark brown and white plumage looked like a piece of the bark itself. While the boisterous Brown-headed Nuthatches noisily made sure that everything around knew they were there, the creeper was just the opposite, very quiet, inconspicuously going about its work, sticking close to the trunk of the tree as it moved, up and up, blending in, making only the smallest scratching sounds.

Suddenly it let go of the trunk and hurtled toward another, as if it had flung itself, fluttering like a moth, and landed down low on a trunk right beside where I stood, maybe four or five feet away, at the most. It was too close for binoculars, and anyway, I was afraid to startle it by moving, so I just stood as still as I could and watched as it made its way up and around and up, pausing here and there. It felt at the time as if it came within inches of my face - in retrospect I'm not sure it was not quite so close, but it felt like it, a rare, very close encounter. The patterns on its back are exquisite, and the throat and breast a pure, creamy white, a bird of unusual delicacy and grace - and not so much shy as just quiet and unobtrusive.

"How seldom we should see the creeper if he did not sound his little note!" wrote Winsor Marrett Tyler more than 60 years ago. "Yet what a faint little note it is, the shortest, lightest pronunciation of the letters ts. He utters it as he climbs upward over the bark and as he flits downward to the base of the next tree. He often gives also a longer, more characteristic note, which may be suggested by the letters zi-i-i-it, a long, high, ringing note, but not loud, apparently broken into minute syllables so that it has a quavering effect. This note resembles the sound made by a small steel chain which, held by the end and let fall, tinkles into a little heap."[6]

I wish I could say that I heard the delightful sound a Brown Creeper makes that day, but I didn't. At that time I had not learned to recognize its call, though I don't know why or how I missed it, except that it is very high and elusive, sort of insect-like. Since then I have learned it and have heard it - not the short note Tyler describes, but the longer call - on several memorable occasions, and it's one of my favorite of all bird sounds. It's a bird call that sounds exactly as you might think a Brown Creeper should sound - not the case with all birds. I might describe it as a whispered sizzle, with a metallic ring to it, too. Really, the description of a small chain falling is very good.

Like the Hermit Thrush, though it often accompanies feeding flocks in the winter, a creeper seems to remain solitary among the crowd, one creeper by itself, going its own way while sort of following along.

"As he climbs up the tree, he is feeding, picking up tiny bits of food that he finds half-hidden in the crevices of bark along his path. In his search he does not work like the woodpeckers, those skilled mechanics whose work requires the use of carpenter's tools, the drill and chisel. The creeper's success depends on painstaking scrutiny, thoroughness, and almost, it seems conscientiousness."[7]

In general, Brown Creepers are still considered widespread, but - as with so many songbirds - there is concern about its population in some places because of habitat loss and degradation. It's considered an interior-forest specialist, and prefers large trees, large snags and mature, old-growth northern forests in the breeding season. In winter it's less particular and is found in a variety of wooded habitats.

"Despite the Brown Creeper's widespread distribution, more research is needed on almost every aspect of its biology," notes the species account in Birds of North America. "While it is clear that forest fragmentation and many timber-harvesting practices have negative impacts on nesting and foraging habitats of this species," the account continues, "the degree to which creepers are affected by both is uncertain." The authors also note, "The effects of management on wintering habitat are virtually unknown."[8]

As I watched the little creeper, fascinated by its diminutive size, lack of shyness and exquisite protective coloring, it looked to me like a tiny piece of the winter woodland in miniature, a fragment of a mosaic. Its coloring reflects the background, and its behavior encapsulates much of the spirit of these winter woods - quiet, unobtrusive, black and white and brown, but when you look more closely, eloquently patterned and suited to its environment, and a great deal of life in this one little packet of feathers.

I don't know how long it remained so close to my face, probably not long, but it seemed a time suspended. It crept over the bark until it was maybe a foot over my head, then it flew to a spot low on the trunk of another tree not far away and repeated the process, creeping up and probing the bark, then it flew again and was gone, and I realized that the rest of the feeding flock also had moved further away, and within only a minute or two it was quiet again, where just moments ago there had been lively chatter and lots of activity - now everything was still. The trees seemed once again empty.

I followed the trail, which now began to slope down, at times rather steeply. Tulip poplars, sweet gums and oaks began to be mixed with the pines, and I left behind the hushed, church-like feeling of the evergreen glen. Instead of being cushioned by pine and cedar needles overhead, around me and under foot, now there were bare jagged branches overhead, the creak of limbs, and lots of branches, twigs and debris down all around me, stumps, stump holes and wet, thick accumulations of leaves under foot. I could see the sky again, very dark gray, through the limbs of the trees. All of this land was at one time terraced, probably for growing cotton in the years when it was most profitable. The evidence of terracing is still prominent on all the slopes but it apparently did little to counteract the extensive and devastating soil erosion caused by poor farming practices. The results of that erosion are also evident everywhere here in these woods, especially on the slopes, in the generally poor condition of the soil and in many gullies that cut roughly into the land.

One gully had become a deep, wide ravine that cut raggedly down the steep slope. During the hot summer months, this runoff gully was usually dry, but in heavy rain in other seasons, water gushed through it, carving it steadily deeper and wider. Its sides were uneven, jagged and gouged with crevices and holes, but parts were thick with moss and ferns. In the bottom of the ravine, in calmer weather, lay soft, clean sand, though now it flowed with milky-brown water, churned up by the recent heavy rains.

At this one particular spot, a tall, slender oak had been uprooted some years ago and it fell across the ravine, making a bridge from edge to edge. On the opposite side of the gully from the root end, at the point where the trunk touched the ground, the tree had put down new roots and begun to grow straight up again, a new, more slender but sturdy trunk now maybe 20 feet tall and supporting a canopy of branches - at this season, of course, mostly bare, though with a skirt of rustling red-brown dead leaves still clinging. This is just the kind of crazy spot that is typical of this woodland - it shows how strange nature can be, how inventive, how scrappy these woods are - doing whatever they need to do in order to survive. We may succeed in wiping them out eventually - we've been doing our best for two or three centuries or more - but they are not going down without a fight.

I almost always stopped at least briefly at this point because it just looked like an interesting spot, with the crevices in the bank, parts of dead logs, stumps with moss growing in the middle, flowing water, exposed roots, and ferns and debris all around on the ground, and I knew what else I might find there at this time of year. It really was interesting how often I could count on finding certain birds in certain areas at this time of year. It may sound as if in this account I'm telescoping the sightings of many walks into one, but that's not the case. This was one actual day, and it wasn't all that unusual. It was just a matter of knowing where to look, of learning over the weeks of the winter where which birds were likely to be where - not always, but often enough to be expected.

At first I heard nothing but the wind and the water, then - a quick little burst of chatter, a sort of chrrr - chrrr-chrrrr, and a tiny dark-brown ball of a bird with an upturned stub of a tail emerged from a tangle of fallen branches - a Winter Wren. It hopped from spot to spot across the pile of branches, went over a fallen log, checked out a hollow stump, all on my side of the ravine, giving a chrrr kind of call a few more times, then flew quickly across to the opposite bank. As far as I could tell, it paid no attention to me at all. I couldn't help thinking of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, because the wren seemed similarly preoccupied and had the appearance of talking to itself and being in something of a hurry and very focused on what it was doing and where it was going. Instead of disappearing down a rabbit hole, it dived into some underbrush and out of sight. Though a Winter Wren is famous for its song, a lively burst of elaborate musical notes, it doesn't often sing here. But its energetic actions, even in winter, reflect its song - electric, almost buzzing with energy all over its little brown-feathered body.

I saw it again, emerging from the under-brush further down the bank, still intent on its search for food, poking into crevices.

Even though they are still widespread and fairly common, there is some concern for the future of Winter Wrens because for nesting habitat they are closely associated with old-growth forest, where they depend on snags, downed logs and large trees for nesting, roosting, and finding food. In winter, however, they - like many songbird species - seem to be less particular about habitat, and make use of a wider variety. Here they seem to prefer lowland habitat around a creek, river or wetland, usually in an area where there's a good bit of debris on the ground - fallen logs, branches, stumps and that sort of thing. So our small woodland must have been inviting, because it had plenty of this kind of habitat.

I walked on down the trail, which became quite steep here, winding down around trees, rocks and fallen trees, until it reached the flat bottomland along the creek. Here I passed through tall white oaks, hickories and tulip poplars, all bare and silent, except for the creaking of branches in the wind and the scrape of one branch rubbing against another. The trees were gray and what I could see of the sky was gray. The mood was of emptiness and silence, and of a certain bareness and exposure. Very few comforting bushes and not much underbrush to dive into, and few birds were likely to be here. The branches, the wind, the distant chuck-chuck of another Red-bellied Woodpecker, squirrels digging in the leaves and scurrying up a trunk, or jumping from branch to branch, the soft thud of wet leaves under my feet, the snap of a branch.

A small side path led over the little creek on a couple of boards, then through soggy leaves, mud and a scraggly mess of privet to an opening on the edge of the beaver pond. The rattle of a Belted Kingfisher broke the silence, and I also began to hear the chek calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, like aural speckles in the privet and other shrubby growth around the pond and saw a few, yellow rump-patches flashing as they flew from spot to spot. Drab, gray-brown streaked birds with pale yellow on the sides and the prominent yellow on the rump, just above the tail, Yellow-rumped Warblers are widespread and common in many different habitats across much of the lower half of the U.S. in winter. Their abundance, together with the dry, quick calls and short, darting flights become a background sound that often goes unnoticed, as they do themselves. Moving south from their spring and summer breeding range in the coniferous forests of north and northeastern North America, "they are impressive in the sheer numbers with which they flood the continent each fall," says Cornell's All About Birds. "Shrubs and trees fill with the streaky brown-and-yellow birds and their distinctive, sharp chips."[9]

"Despite the wide range and abundance of the Yellow-rumped Warbler," notes the species account in Birds of North America, "many aspects of its biology remain largely unstudied - particularly its breeding biology, owing in part to the remoteness of much of its breeding range and to its low breeding densities."[10]

Despite all we know about birds - and more is being learned each year, each day really - I am repeatedly reminded of how many things we do not know about many of even the most widespread species. "Much remains to be learned," is a common refrain. I suspect this is true not only for birds, but perhaps even more for other members of a woodland community like this - the turtles, toads, frogs, salamanders, insects, spiders, ferns, mosses, fungi, microorganisms and even the trees and other plants - as well as for the ecological patterns that weave them all together into one living place. We know enough to respect that it is a living place, though - and enough to know that "more study is needed" of it all, because so much knowledge lives here, so much more that could expand our own understanding of life and its mysteries. And yet, for all our knowledge, we still seem not to know better than to casually destroy living communities like this, especially if one has no endangered species or remarkable scenery to make it seem special. We still seem incapable of understanding and respecting the fundamental value and rights of the living world beyond our own needs.

My thoughts had wandered like this. The loud cheeeer-cheeeeeer trill of a Carolina Wren brought me back, and I also heard the scratching and sibilant tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows somewhere under the privet and other weedy shrubs. Widespread and common migrants from the far north, like the Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows are handsome birds, with dark brown back streaked with black, smooth gray breast, a dab of golden yellow between the eye and the bill, and a neatly-outlined white throat. But the reason I love them is their song, a beautiful, plaintive whistled song that's often described as Old Sam Peabody or Oh sweet Canada. Through the fall and winter months, they sing broken pieces of the song, most often early in the morning or late in the evening, at twilight - and sometimes a lovely full song, from some hidden spot in the thickets, will grace a cold, dark winter day.

A kingfisher rattled again, and I saw it, perched on a branch on the far edge of the pond, big crested head ink-blue against a blur of gray branches. A small, fluttering flash of white and black flew across the pond and attached itself to a snag - a Red-headed Woodpecker. It, too, was not close, its head a drop of blood-red, its black back crossed by the broad white bands on the wings. It looked very small out there, all alone, as far as I could see, and was quiet, not giving its loose, warbled rattle. It seemed to be working on the snag, but I couldn't even hear it tapping. It and the kingfisher looked strangely isolated, small dots of life and color against a somber, still background.

The pond was like this. Even when most active in the middle of summer, on the surface it could appear almost still, and to see it, really, I had to be willing to wait a while and blend in and become a part of it for long minutes of time at least. And on this day I didn't have the patience. I was beginning to feel restless and cold. A chilling, wet wind blew across the water, and I wanted to head back for the house and be where it was warm and dry. Just as I turned to leave, another movement caught my eye. Three Hooded Mergansers, a male and two females floated quietly in and out of tall dead grass, the male resplendent with its coal-black head and big white-patched crest fanned up, a black back with white stripes, white chest and dusky-cinnamon sides; the females, by comparison rather drab dark gray with brownish crests; and all with long, thin merganser bills. If I had been willing to stay, there was probably a lot more to see there, but the spell of the day was breaking. I was ready to go home.

Back on the trail, I followed it through the flat bottomland along the small creek, tall gray trees all around me, squishing over thick wet leaves, watching my step, circling around puddles, sinking in some mucky places anyway, passing the one very large, sprawling sycamore tree that grew on the bank of the creek, handsome in its winter patterned bark, then taking a sharp turn and starting up a steep slope again, past meadows of ferns that drooped limp with rainwater, past the spot I called Big Vine Bend, between bare dogwoods and buckeyes, and on up, past the big uprooted oak with its medusa-like red clay root mass. If there were birds along here, I did not hear them. The wind felt frigid and damp, seeping into my bones. My mind was already ahead of me, thinking about warm dry socks and slippers, and wrapping up in a blanket in a chair by the fire.

As I came to the edge of the woods though, where the trail opened into the small clearing behind our house, I couldn't ignore the bright peenk! call of a Hairy Woodpecker - a common year-round resident of these woods, but one not so often seen. A larger version of the more familiar Downy Woodpecker, a Hairy Woodpecker is a forest-loving bird that tends to stay in the deeper recesses of the woods, but when it's around its loud, assertive and frequently repeated peenk! doesn't sound shy or retiring at all. Its call is much more emphatic than the similar pink of a Downy. This one was a male, with a bright red spot on the back of the head, working on a tall, dead or dying pine that still held branches of brown needles. Its black and white patterned plumage looked clean and elegant, erect, with straight-backed posture and a slender, long-billed profile - I want to say "long-nosed," because that's how it looks, though it's not accurate. A very thin white eye-ring gave him a wide-eyed look.

The brusque, intense behavior of a Hairy Woodpecker also distinguishes it from a Downy, which by comparison seems relaxed and easy-going. A Hairy Woodpecker is intensely energetic, industrious, very active and watchful, focused on work - and quite vocal about it, calling out frequently as it moves from spot to spot. This one worked its way up the tree, steadily pecking and calling. He stopped, tested out several spots, flicked away large flakes of pine bark with a sharp turn of his head, and when he found a spot he liked, he pecked at it repeatedly, making a hole and enlarging it. Exactly what he was doing then, I couldn't see, but the larvae of wood-boring beetles - like pine bark beetles -can make up a prominent part of a Hairy Woodpecker's diet, and the woodpecker uses a remarkable long, barbed tongue to extract these larvae from their tunnels.

"There has been considerable discussion as to how the woodpeckers locate the larvae, active or dormant, which are hidden deeply in the wood and for which they drill so unerringly," wrote Dr. Thomas S. Roberts, as cited by A.C. Bent in Lives of North American Woodpeckers. "All the special senses of birds are very highly developed, and it seems probable that in this case hearing, touch, and smell all may play a part. The active grub, as it crunches the wood, makes a sound that would surely be audible to a bird with its keen sense of hearing. The tunnel produces a cavity which would give both a different sound and feeling on tapping over it. Such things as grubs have a strong odor, and it is probable that this plays a part also.'"[11]

I thought as I watched this Hairy Woodpecker how intimately all the woodpeckers must know the trees, probing them constantly with all of their senses, their lives depending on the trees and the insects that live inside them. It's intriguing to try to imagine what this must be like, and how different from our own lives and perspectives.

The area in which this Hairy Woodpecker worked was a wooded slope on which there were many dead and dying pines mixed with a few thin, spindly living pines, younger sweet gums, tulip poplars and oaks. With standing snags, fallen trees and branches, broken trunks on the ground, stumps and piles of fallen bark, it was not a very attractive scene - but a popular place for several species of woodpeckers, including Pileated, Red-bellied, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers. We had found both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers nesting here. If the Red-headed Woodpeckers visited these trees, though, I never saw them. They stayed down in the bottomlands around the beaver ponds, preferring a different part of the community, with the dead trees and snags out in the water, and the larger hardwoods in the woods surrounding the ponds.

It was easy to find woodpecker signs throughout this woodland - holes in trees and bark stripped away - and sapsucker holes ringing trees. During the winter when Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers joined the year-round residents, we had all the possible woodpecker species in this region here in this one small woodland, and it wasn't at all unusual to find most or all of them on a single day.

Woodpeckers may be one of the best reminders that even though there may be nothing inviting or appealing about these woods in winter - to our eyes - it is a living place, supporting a diverse community of wildlife in all seasons. It's a metaphorical briar patch, the home that only looks forbidding to those who don't live there. And the roughest parts of the landscape here, like the dead and dying pines, or the weedy, thorny clearings where natural succession is in its earliest, toughest stages, are a reminder that a forest like this is always changing. As Lucy Braun said, it's a cycle, it has no end and no beginning. She was referring to the cycle of the seasons, but there's also the cycle of life and death, of destruction and recovery. These woods are not pristine, not untouched by the hand and machines of men. But they remain alive and continue to recover - if only we give them half a chance. The abuses that destroyed these woods over and over again in the past two or three centuries were not a part of the natural cycle, but the process of recovery is natural, and can succeed if we let it.

With one last emphatic peenk! the Hairy Woodpecker flew. I turned away from watching it, and stepped out of the woods into the clearing. An Eastern Phoebe sat on a low branch by the side of the house, flicking its tail, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and a Downy Woodpecker all were active around the feeder that hung from our back deck. Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows fed below it. A Hermit Thrush sat very still in a small tree by the garage, near the compost pile, then dropped down to walk around on the leaf-strewn ground.

As I walked out into the open, they all scattered, diving for cover. The fine mist was getting harder, turning into rain. I headed inside to a warm fire, a cup of tea and a book.
[5]James H. Withgott and Kimberly G. Smith. 1998. Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
[6]Winsor Marrett Tyler, "Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)," originally published in 1948, Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 56-70. Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, text by Arthur Cleveland Bent and collaborators. Online source selected and edited by Patricia Query Newforth, copyright 1996-2010.
[7]Tyler, "Brown Creeper (Certhia americana).
[8]S.J. Hejl, K.R. Newlon, M.E. Mcfadzen, J.S. Young and C.K. Ghalambor. 2002. Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
[9]Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Yellow-rumped Warbler.
[10] P.D. Hunt and David J. Flaspohler. 1998. Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
[11]Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1932), in Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers, Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 18-19. Originally published 1939, Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum.


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