I heard it first – that piccolo descent whispered rarely by the shy and elusive tree-creeper. It is a sound like the distant approach of Pan with his pipes – a delicate, independent music, an almost sound, a faint did-I-really-hear-that sound. I sat for a moment transfixed, picturing this dainty, self-contained, industrious little bird that always makes me want to cup its warmth in my hand – all nine feathered grams of it – whilst never wishing to intrude on its wild privacy.
It was early May and I had been cycling through the busy city traffic every evening for the past week to sit in the same spot in the park, amongst a clutch of freshly greening trees, and observe the nesting birds. I had watched blue-tits, great-tits and coal-tits busying and fretting among the branches, only diving into their respective tree-holes after exhaustive inspection of all potential threat to their precious task of self-perpetuation. They would arrive, sidling towards their destination like children playing ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’, eyeballing me with feigned nonchalance and much wary head-cocking and twitchy swiveling, as I raised and lowered my strange glass eyes. ‘Why are you watching me? Are you a threat? Who are you?’ they seemed to ask me, as I scribbled in my notebook and returned their gaze with my own unspoken questions and desire to connect.
And then, as I sat at the foot of a substantial oak, dusty brown with its curiously autumnal first bloom of leaves, the tree-creeper I had heard minutes before alighted silently on the trunk just three metres up. Tiny, feather-like, it clung to the cracked bark with an effortless light-touch: its back a fine pepper-sprinkled dun; its shape that of one of its body-feathers under a magnifying glass, curling with its own breath; its breast a downy virginal white, nightgown white, lace white. In its slender, probing, down-curved beak, the tree-creeper carried a gull’s feather at least one-and-a-half times its own length, held horizontally at mid-point. Balancing this great object didn’t seem to pose any problems, nor had there been a hint of the feather complicating the bird’s landing by colliding with the tree-trunk, or getting in the way of wings and air-currents.
But that was only the start of the feat of agility I was to be privileged to observe. This bird, scarcely twelve centimetres long, then proceeded to jab the point of the quill into the oak bark so effectively, with a single efficient sideways head-action, that the feather remained firmly wedged at a forty-five degree angle when the tree-creeper let go with its beak. It was like a masterful hammer-blow that drives the nail in at the perfect angle in one go. My admiration, wonder and curiosity were aroused. What did this little bird plan to do with its trophy?
I watched, holding my breath in amazement, as this mouse of a bird, having successfully wedged its raw ‘plank’ in the vice of the oak tree, then set about systematically stripping the feather of its vane of barbs and barbules – the fine tendrils or filaments sprouting from the spine, the rachis. It worked methodically down each side of the spine, balancing upright against the tree-trunk with the aid of its stiffened tail feathers and stripping the strands with its beak until it had accumulated a soft fluffy white beak-full. It then flitted a metre or so up the trunk to a crack in the bark that concealed a hole I had not even detected. Perching on the rim for a quick check for danger, it disappeared inside, returning, beak-empty, to the threshold brief seconds later.
The whole process was repeated time after time over a period of minutes, until the discarded quill stuck bare out of the bark in surreal discord. The tree-creeper then emerged for the last time from its hole, perched once more on the threshold, briefly wiped its beak on the bark and flew off, perhaps to find deserved food after a job well done. I sat at the foot of the host to this performance, filled with awe at the magic-lantern show I had just witnessed. That little bird had had a purpose, had acted on a plan, had worked something out and had used the bark of the tree as a tool to help it. I tried to picture the snug nest that was evolving inside, lined by all those soft, fine tendrils of feather shed by some unsuspecting benefactor and recycled as a down-lining for the coming brood.
From that night the tree-creeper’s nest became the focus of my observations and the start of a precious intimacy which I continue to feel whenever I see that piece of curled bark detach itself from the rough, pocked surface of a tree-trunk and creep its way – cropian, crepian – with systematic agility, hopping with feet together and gripping with long-clawed toes, as it spirals upwards in search of insect food. It has become my favourite woodland bird – dringwr bach, the little climber, dringwr y coed, the woodland climber; cropiedydd, crepianog, aderyn pen bawd – bird the size of a thumb.
A few days ago I became aware of a little ‘Thumbelina’ working the trees opposite my window and once more held my breath when it flicked across the road to explore my fuchsia bush, inches away from my face through the glass. I whispered a welcome to my dainty guest – Certhia familiaris, from the Greek kerthios, a small tree-dwelling bird, with an ingenious brain and a mystical touch of feather-light magic.
Barbara Clark is an MA student in Creative Writing at Swansea University. Clark has a background in nature conservation, having established the Shared Earth Trust at Denmark Farm near Lampeter, a wildlife conservation centre and nature reserve.
Banner artwork courtesy of Valériane Leblond – ‘Does dim dal’