Country diary: a two-handed comic treecreeper act bursts out of the trees | Environment

The little grebe jackknifes out of sight almost before I have time to register that it’s there: a flash of chestnut cheek, a plop, and a fading pattern of concentric ripples on the water. The bird books invariably characterise Tachybaptus ruficollis as “shy” or “secretive”, and it’s not hard to see why – but in reality, these things are as changeable as the seasons.

On the deep-textured trunk of a willow, a treecreeper making its skulking way upwards can give the impression that a fragment of bark has detached itself and is crawling in jerky stop-motion towards the sun. This is the classic “more often heard than seen” species. The accelerating swee-swee-swee call is usually the first indication that one is on the scene.

Not today, though. I’ve given up waiting for the grebe to resurface when something small, brown and feathery comes spiralling over my shoulder like a tiny plane in a tailspin, headed for the riverside copse. It drops with a little crash into the thick footings of ivy. Then it leaps out again. Then another one comes after it, and the pair – treecreepers, I can see now – perform a frantic, fluttery dance of pursuit among the trees. They keep reappearing as, over the next couple of hours, I make my way around the reserve: a two-handed comic act repeatedly bursting out of the trees to put on their boisterous chase-me skit.

Personality, in birds, is conditional. Many species are shy – that is, wary, fearful, risk-averse – until the turn of the earth presents them with a pressing reason not to be. Treecreepers have no cause to leave their close world of bark, branch and knot until the springtime sex drive kicks in.

What we call personality is really a calculation of risk and need. I saw the flipside of it during the mid-March cold snap. Three cock reed buntings lurked around a frost-whitened bird table. They and I knew that there was a sparrowhawk lurking in the bare hawthorn, waiting for them to break cover – but hunger, here, was the countering force. Every lightning dash to the table was a gamble. This is the tension wild things live with.