The bird was only a couple of metres from me. The branch of the Scots Pine swayed precariously as it tried to find its footing, but it managed to keep its footing.
I recognised it instantly; there’s nothing else you could confuse it with. There’s no way you could mistake the striped-brown wings, sleek white plumage, upturned beak and quite literally pear-shaped body, any more than you could mistake its habit of walking upside down on the bottom of a branch, head always facing downwards.
By now, however, it had decided the pine was not for its liking; certainly something caused it to make a beeline for the nearest sycamore, passing within 2 feet of me in the process. Almost as memorable as that amazing moment- the sort which reminds you why nature is the best of life’s pleasures-was its flight pattern. Like the rest of the bird, it strikes you as decidedly un-birdlike: more of a drunken sway, veering up and down, side to side, back and forth. And on reaching the sycamore, it proceeded to enact its species most famous trademark: the jerky, back-turned-to-the-audience climb upwards, while rotating around the tree.
Certhia familiaris, the European treecreeper. An ornithological wallflower not much bigger than a wren. Not Britain’s largest bird, or the most colourful, or the one with the greatest vocal range. But without a doubt,in my opinion, definitely the strangest.
What makes it so strange? Well, put simply, it’s a bird that doesn’t think it’s a bird. Shimmying up trees and clambering across thin branches, it does justice to its West Country name, the ‘tree mouse’. But this method of climbing has a purpose: it’s to extract insects from the bark of trees. The extra-long, curved bill has evolved for this purpose, and to balance itself while doing so, it has evolved an extra-long tail. The consequence of this is that, unlike its cousin the nuthatch, it cannot move back downwards. So, when it reaches the top of a tree, it simply flies to the bottom of the next tree in line and repeats the process, shimmying up whole avenues of trees in a highly systematic fashion.
Personality-wise, it is, as I said, very much a wallflower. It makes its way into many wildlife gardening and birdwatching books as a ‘garden bird’, but if anything its placement there serves to push boundaries. Treecreepers only occassionally venture into gardens, appear on feeders once in a blue moon, and mostly keep themselves to themselves.
But of course, there are several examples of birds altering their: siskins became garden birds after the creation of red mesh feeders in the 1960s, and blackcaps are evolving shorter wings to stay in British gardens during winter. Who knows? Perhaps these introverts may become more outgoing in the future, and will become frequent visitors to our birdfeeders.
I’ve seen that treecreeper several times since. Its presence couldn’t be more perfectly timed; it’s a new year, and that means starting anew and doing things differently. And this was something new: a treecreeper in the garden. I couldn’t ask for more.
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