Hunting the Marsh Wren

100_Marsh_Wren_cropped (wiki commons)

Marsh Wren – John James Audubon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have had a special interest in taking some good pictures of a Marsh Wren since a trip to the Cheam Lake Wetlands near Agassiz BC in late May. On that visit the Marsh Wrens were in peak singing form and I was barely out of my car when I heard the sounds of multiple wrens sparring in the marshy area a short distance from the parking lot.

Now I have read that Marsh Wrens like to sing from a prominent perch such as the top of a cattail. You can see this behaviour depicted, for example, in the drawing by John Audubon from around 1830. You would think then, with all the chattering, that I would have left with a picture or two. That day, however, I struck out. The wrens dove for cover before I could get close enough for a good shot.

Admittedly, I’m not one to stand around waiting for a bird to appear so my lack of success was partly my own fault. Besides, the male bird’s singing, heard almost constantly at that time of year, is distinctive enough for identification and counting.

Finally, a Cooperative Wren.

On one of my regular trips to Colony Farm Regional Park on August 22 I finally found a cooperative Marsh Wren.

Juvenile WrenNot far from the pump-house I came across a small brown bird in the middle of the gravel path taking a dust bath. My first thought was a juvenile Marsh Wren which I confirmed a few days later with the help of an online bird identification forum.  It clearly spotted me but seemed confident enough (the boldness of youth perhaps) that as long as I kept my distance, it would not run for cover.

It’s movements were incredibly swift and it could go from one resting position watching me to another in a fraction of a second with.  The following 4 sequences of pictures were taken in burst mode with 1/5 of a second between consecutive frames.  The first 3-frame sequence, for instance covered a period of just 0.4 seconds during which the wren went from sitting facing right, to sitting facing left following a roll-manoeuver onto its side.

Juvenile Wren Composite #1 (447-449)

In the next 1.0 second sequence the wren finishes a roll, watches me for almost half a second and then goes into another roll with my final image catching it just when it was on its back.

Wren Composite #2 (451-456)

Here is another 0.6 second clip showing a sequence of watch – roll – watch – roll.

Wren Composite #3 (462-465)

Lastly, one final 0.6 second sequence of watching with a 90 degree twist.

Wren Composite #4 (470-473)

The little wren was definitely cute and put on a good show.  In retrospect, I should have used the camera to create a short video to show its incredibly quick movements.  I still want to get pictures of an adult Marsh Wren though this may have to wait for 2014.

The Marsh Wren is definitely an interesting bird to watch and to listen to.  As a song bird, some western individuals have been known to learn and sing over 200 songs which are learned from other wrens and, in some cases, from other species as well.  Here is a recording that I made on June 5 of a duet between a Marsh Wren and a Gray Catbird.  If you listen carefully, in the last 10 seconds you can hear the catbird mimicking some of the wren’s song phrases.  Note that this recording was made almost the exact location where I photographed this immature wren which could conceivably be the singing wren’s offspring.

Marsh Wren – The Dark Side

If you read up on the Marsh Wren species the are a few behaviours that the species is known for. One is polygyny and it is not uncommon for a single male to breed with multiple females.  During nest building, the male may actually make as many as 10 nests even though a courting female will ultimately only choose one. Of course, if the wren takes more than one mate one is clearly not enough. The remainder go unused though some speculate that they may get for refuge by fledged birds during a storm or if the first nest fails.

A second behaviour that the Marsh Wren is known for is egg destruction.  Both male and female birds will destroy eggs and even hatchlings in nests close to their territory if given the chance.  This includes eggs in other Marsh Wren nests.  This is undoubtedly an evolutionary strategy that helps remove competition  for food and nesting sites.

This behaviour, not unexpectedly, has earned the Marsh Wren several enemies. Two of the principal ones are the Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds that frequently inhabit the same types of environments during breeding season. The larger blackbirds will frequently chase the wrens trying to drive them out of the area. There are reports of Yellow-headed blackbirds hopping on wren nests to destroy them or blocking the entrance to a nest to prevent a female Marsh Wren from returning to their brood.

The Marsh Wren is a bird with lots of personality that is definitely one of my favourites.

References

[1] Kroodsma, Donald E. and Jared Verner. 1997. Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/308; doi:10.2173/bna.308

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