A rock flower's blessing

Wallcreeper (Martin Kelsey)

Few birds conjure such expectation or are so magically engaging to watch as Wallcreepers. I suspect all birders fortunate enough to have seen Wallcreepers remember their first encounter, and most of their subsequent ones too. Mine was on 6th July 1981 from the Marienbrücke across the Pöllat Gorge in Bavaria. Whilst sightseers stood admiring the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle from the bridge, just as its creator King Ludwig II had done, I looked down into the gorge itself. Quietly I absorbed the profound satisfaction of watching my very first Wallcreeper. I wrote that evening "a Wallcreeper was sighted - a fine crimson-winged bird feeding on a moth and also preening. Whenever it moved and climbed over the rocks it did so in a fluttering fashion and its flight was butterfly-like". Closing my eyes, I can picture it now.

Since then, I have received blessings from the Rock Flower (a Chinese name for the species)* in other equally memorable settings: limestone gorges in south France, rocky massifs in the Pyrenees, in the Himalayas of Ladakh and amongst riverside boulders in northern India, where I sat and watched Wallcreepers from the back of an elephant.

Zoologists use the term scansorial to describe the habit of climbing, but although Wallcreepers are referred as a scansorial species, their movement across a rock face is a delightful combination of hops and flutters. It is this staccato that reveals their presence. When still, this small, short-tailed bird fades into the greyness of the substrate. But it does not remain so for long. It works the vertical rock-face in a jerky series of short and long hops.

Video of Wallcreeper (Martin Kelsey)

As it moves, so the wings spread as split-second adjustments of balance. This reveals the startling presence of carmine, black and flashes of white,  hidden when the wing is folded. To shift further, the bird simply lets go of the rock face and following a slight outward propulsion, falls like a pebble, breaking the descent by opening its wings fully with a manouevre to allow its claws to regain purchase with the cliff.

Wallcreeper (Martin Kelsey)

It has two further supreme adapations to its life on the rocks. The long, decurved bill can enter fine cracks and crevices in search of its invertebrate prey, seized by aid of a barbed tongue. Its slender front toes are equipped with long, curved claws which attach the bird to the rock.

In Extremadura we are about 400 kms in a straight line from the nearest breeding Wallcreepers (in the Picos de Europa). Yet, this is a bird I have seen in three different winters here, in 2008, 2016 and then again in 2019/20.  This most recent bird spent the winter close to the tiny village of Cabañas del Castillo, which sleeps below an abrupt crag which boasts at its summit ancient Moorish fortifications. These rocks stand on just one of a ripple of elevations forming the Villuercas Mountains, an Appalachian relief with rows of thrusting quartzites interspersed by curvaceous sincline valleys. This mountain range holds more records of Wallcreeper than anywhere else in Extremadura.

Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

Last year, a Wallcreeper was seen on one day close to the village, but despite much searching was never found again. Pedro Holgado and Laura Rollán are two birders who live in Cabañas del Castillo. Mid-December, I wrote a WhatsApp to Laura to suggest Wallcreeper would be a pretty neat bird for her to find at Christmas! She replied that she had been exploring the area, but so far nothing. And then, on 23rd December, which also happened to be her birthday, she was monitoring an area where she and Pedro study wintering Alpine Accentor. At that moment, a crimson, black and white form crossed her field of view: she had found a Wallcreeper!

Her discovery brought birders from Extremadura and beyond. Mostly they were successful in seeing it, but effort was required. I saw it first on 26th December, spending two hours to do so.

I am looking for the Wallcreeper on 26th December (David Lindo)

In January, I saw it again: this time after four hours. On 11th March, I returned to Cabañas del Castillo and met with Pedro. There had been no sighting of the Wallcreeper since early March and we both thought that perhaps it had already migrated northwards, especially because of the fine weather that had prevailed. We reclined on rocks below the cliff face in the warm afternoon sunshine. We waited. Black Redstarts distracted us with their ruddy tail quiver and sweezing call. A Peregrine wheeled overhead. We silently granted ourselves a further five minutes wait. A  male Hen Harrier, clearly on migration, flapped high above us. Then, the form of a butterfly floated in from our left, round and wide wings, shocks of white on black, like a Hoopoe in minature. Settling just in front of us, it started its erratic exploration of the warm rock. We soaked its presence in, watching it bouncing across the rock with hues of lichen, its crevices full of life. It was geology that brought the Wallcreeper here, the strained and stratified quartzite, fissured and bountiful.

This bird had been ringed a few weeks earlier by Luis Lozano, accompanied by Pedro, his son Julián and the technician Miguel Ángel Romo. It is a female. Was she the bird glimpsed a year earlier? And will she be back again next year, a rock flower amongst the cushions of blue dwarf sheeps bit?

Wallcreeper and dwarf sheeps bit flowers (Martin Kelsey)

* See Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol 13, pp 146-165


Brian Banks said…
The only one I have seen was at Gavarnie, in the Pyrenees.

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