Jura Mountains, Switzerland, 23 February 2015

On an unpromising afternoon of intermittent rain, we scanned the crags above the village. A small bird dropped from the cliff face and immediately disappeared behind derelict industrial buildings below. The tantalizing glimpse of red, white, grey and black could only be one thing: a Wallcreeper! We hurried down excitedly and saw it again, briefly, perched high on the wall of the disused warehouse, then disappearing inside through a broken window. We waited and it emerged, then flew across the valley, bounding and jinking with exaggerated wingbeats, the pale upperparts, flashing red wing patches and white-spotted wing feathers clear but distant against the dark trees. Another wait, then it reappeared, this time on the viaduct, just below us, and for the first time we got a decent view.

We took turns to watch it through the ‘scope. It perched effortlessly on the vertical masonry and shuffled up and along the joints, probing for spiders and insects with its long, decurved, black bill, and restlessly flicking its wings open and shut. Each flick of the wings revealed bands of big white spots on the flight feathers, setting off dazzling carmine-red inner wings. In winter plumage, it was strikingly pale above, the ash-grey mantle merging to darker grey on the crown and pure white on the throat.

It flew briefly onto one of the buttresses supporting the piers of the viaduct, hopping on the wet, horizontal surface and revealing its big, black feet, the claws the secret of its success on those vertical faces. It soon became elusive again, looking tiny, delicate and exotic as it flitted through the massive, soaring arches of the viaduct, nearly 50 metres above the valley bottom. After a while, a second bird appeared briefly and attempted a landing. The first bird swooped at it and saw it off, then disappeared itself back behind the warehouses.