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Elusive “Brown Birds” in Winter

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Beyond the backyard bird feeder in winter, there may lurk a species or two that is tough to find even against a backdrop of fresh snowfall in the woods of Southeast New England.

Two such species have been spotted by Lloyd Center staff this past week on the nature preserve: the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) and the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). 

The Hermit Thrush is the only brown-backed spotted thrush to winter in the U.S. It is a ground forager distinguished by a lightly-spotted white breast, and a rust-colored tail that flicks frequently. During breeding season, the flute-like song is unmistakable. Hermit thrushes can be very curious and approachable, and may respond to screech owl call imitations. 

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The Brown Creeper is similar to nuthatches (family Sittidae) but exists in its own family (family Certhiidae) and is very challenging to spot, due to its brown color that blends into tree bark. Unlike the nuthatches which forage sideways and upside down, the creeper circles a tree upward and uses its stiff tail as a prop. 

This bird’s activities are tied intimately to tree bark. Its bill is efficiently curved for probing for insects, and creepers may nest behind a sheet of loose bark. Creepers are an occasional visitor to suet-type feeders.

Can you spot the creeper in this photo? (Sources include Birds of North America, 2001, Sibley’s Guide to Birds, 2000).

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