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Bird finds warmth in hands of Duluth man

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The company airplane made a day-trip to Duluth last week. I always enjoy getting to the North Shore and at least briefly, experiencing the hustle and bustle of a port town. Plus the views are of a kind not found here on the Great Plains: steep rocky terrain, an unending fetch of water, thick forested land, and large ships plying the waters of the Great Lakes.

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For bird nuts there is an added bonus. Duluth has a rich history of numerous and interesting bird sightings; more than any other location that I know of for hundreds of miles in any direction. There's Hawk Ridge, internationally known for the hundreds of thousands of raptors which pass through every spring and fall. Out on Park Point, Arctic species such as red-throated loons, parasitic jaegers and arctic terns are expected annually. Nearby, in the famous Sax Zim bog, boreal specialists like great gray owl, boreal chickadee and spruce grouse nest.

But like every location, Duluth comes with a downside. In their case, it's usually the weather. Given its proximity to a giant inland sea, Duluth is normally cooler (in summer) than its neighbors deeper onto land, and comes with more moisture too. So it was this day, as a cool, steady rain fell from low dark clouds keeping most folks huddled under umbrellas and quickly making their way indoors.

The other pilot and I found our way to Canal Park and enjoyed a relaxing late breakfast. After wandering through a few specialty shops, we headed toward the exit. At the door, a rain-soaked older man was gently cradling something in a handkerchief. He said it had struck a window and was lying stunned on the wet pavement outside. He carefully peeled the fabric open to reveal a bird I had never seen so closely. Cuddled in the wrinkled, but warm hands, of this Good Samaritan was a brown creeper (Certhia Americana).

Brown creepers, as their name implies, spend their day winging from one tree to the next where they spiral up the trunk - clinging like Velcro to the bark - using their disproportionately long tails as props. With little pointed but curved beaks, the bird forages among the cracks and crevasses feeding on little invertebrate morsels like insect pupae, spiders, or their eggs. In a way, the bird resembles a miniature woodpecker, but the two are not related whatsoever. Instead, creepers are more genetically linked to wrens and gnatcatchers.

The bird is covered in a near perfect camouflage of feathers. It's a mix of brown and white blending so well with tree bark that, were it not for its habit of inching nervously up a tree, it would be near impossible to see.

About the only thing that will readily give away the presence of brown creepers is their call, a high-pitched lisping "tsee," reminiscent of golden-crowned kinglets. But just because a person hears them doesn't mean you can find them. During a recent December bird count, there were at least half a dozen brown creepers in one area of Fargo's Lindenwood Park giving their call. But I and my buddy saw exactly zero.

Brown creepers winter across most of the United States and there are many currently in area parks and woods. The birds are moving through on their way to nesting grounds in the north woods and boreal forest. Look for them foraging loosely with other species such as kinglets and chickadees.

Always suspected but unconfirmed, someone finally found a creeper nest a few years ago in North Dakota (they do nest reliably in northern Minnesota). It was at Sully's Hill near Devil's Lake and I was able to see it. Almost invariably, as the books describe, creeper nests are hidden behind a flap of hanging bark. So was this one.

Now whether the Duluth bird recovered from its run-in with the window or not I don't know. But with the care and admiration being afforded it by the soft-spoken man, it certainly had a head start. I just hope the next time our company makes the trip up there, a person can walk around without rain gear.

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