Last night we turned the clocks back an hour, giving us an extra hour of sleep and heralding the beginning of “winter time.” Tomorrow I will leave work in the dark and this will be the case until sometime in February. The bug I’ve been fighting moved south to my chest during the night and so I’ve planted myself on the couch for the day. The wind is blowing today and it is much colder than the past two days. This is the wind that strips weakening leaves from the branches yet here, in the little dip we call Cherry Valley, there are still trees, maples mostly, that are only just starting to turn color and drop leaves. My view from the couch is mostly green but the river birch in the back is blazing yellow and ensuring I make no mistake of the date. I recall quite clearly, when I was a teenager, that as a general rule, by November 1 the trees were essentially bare. We still have at least a week here, if not more.
Our newlywed neighbors, Jonathan and Bronwen, stopped by on the walk around the block with their dog, Patchy. They had a bird for me, recently expired and wrapped in a leaf. It was a brown creeper, Certhia americana, and only the third one I had ever seen in this part of the Cape. Creepers are very pretty little birds and, while not rare, are a local species that many of us have probably never seen. They are the only North American member of a group of birds called the treecreepers, or Certhiidae. Their head reminds me of a wren, with a long downward-curved bill and superficially it has some of the same browns and whites as the Carolina wren, which is now quite common in our backyards here. Wrens, however, cock their tails up over their backs. The tail of a creeper, however, is straight and very stiff. They use this stiff tail to prop themselves up, like a woodpecker, as they earn their name; creeping face-up in a rising spiral up the truck of large trees. They are quite distinct when you do spot one. They climb up a tree in a manner similar to how a nuthatch goes down a tree: sort of jerky and erratic. They probe cracks and crevices in the bark for small insects and, when they go as high as is profitable, they fly down to the base of the next tree where they start up again. I looked up the species on a couple of web sites, which affirmed the little I already knew. One amusing tidbit reveals that a group of tree-creepers, a rare social state for a predominantly solitary bird, is known as a “spiral” or a “sleaze!”. I’m not sure what a bird has to do to earn such a label and when I looked in various dictionaries to see if there was some more innocuous definition than the slang variety, the best I came up with was “a loosely woven material, flimsy.” Another mystery for the ages.
As far as this one is concerned, it’s life has come to an end. I’ll ziplock him into a bag and freeze him for eventual transport to the American Museum of Natural History. I have a state salvage permit that allows me to keep expired, but still regulated, birds for scientific use. There, this one will be skinned or skeletonized or have some tissue sampled for some genomic workup. Whether that beats feeding a host of decomposers in the backyard, I’m not sure. At the moment, though, I’m happy to have a chance to see one up close and a reason to research a little bit about this stranger to the neighborhood. While the colors seem drab, the overall pattern is really quite beautiful and I marvel again at the overall elegance of the tiny little lives that share our neighborhoods and woodlands, doing their job of living very quietly and very well.