Elusive winter wren sings at Rock Creek
A pileated woodpecker announced his territory from high above by singing and hammering as I started down Rock Creek Nature Trail, six miles East of Nevada City, on the road to the Conservation Camp. I ignored him as I was looking for a much smaller bird, the winter wren.
Several years ago, a winter wren caught me without my camera and sang uninterrupted for minutes from a perch about 10 feet away. Since then, I’d seen and heard them several times, but each time I’d missed the picture as the birds were hidden in the bush.
Winter wrens are among the smallest of North American birds outside of hummingbirds, running from 3 inches to 4.7 inches in length and weighing a scant eight-to-12 grams. In spite of their size, they have a commanding song and presence. They are easily identified by their size and short upright tail, but it’s their long, varied song that really sets them apart from other wrens.
The last snows of winter were melting away, and the trees and bushes had just begun to green-up on this St. Patrick’s Day. It was ideal, with no leaves to cover the sun – or my view. Even so, I had the flash attachment in my pocket, as these birds could easily be sitting on the dark side of the steep canyon. I knew that I had the luck of the Irish with me when, within 10 yards of the parked car, I heard the first wren.
I stopped immediately when the next one sang seemingly right beside my ear. Just as I spotted him in a small bush, he flew away to a stump. There, he perched on a branch shadowed by a tree on the other side of Rock Creek. He flew off right after I got a few blurry pictures. It seemed like a good area, and I put the flash on. I’ll come back here on my way out, I thought, and started to leave, when he flew back, sang and posed for more pictures in the exact location he’d left minutes earlier.
Unique among wrens, the North American Winter Wren is highly dependent on old-growth forests, using the forests’ snags and downed logs for nesting, foraging and roosting. Consequently, its numbers have been estimated to have declined by 47 percent in Northern California, though its current population appears to be stable.
I knew that this was getting serious when I found myself on my hands and knees, cradling my camera in my arms and crawling over a moss-covered log to get into an area where I could see the wren who let me home-in on his location by his song.
These wrens can be found year-round at Rock Creek and up at Skillman Reserve, another old-growth forest farther up Highway 20. They also are found along the coast, from Big Sur north.
Male winter wrens build nests – as many as 15 in one study. Males will work on one nest and temporarily abandon it to work on another. The female’s job is to select the nest and line it with feathers before laying eggs. Some researchers feel that she selects a mate on the basis of the nests he offers. Males have been seen showing their stocks of nests to females while singing a ritualized song. Nests unused one year may be redone the next.
In all, I heard and saw probably 10 winter wrens on the path along Rock Creek in the dark moist tangle they prefer. They were about the only thing singing in the lower part of the forest.
Walt Carnahan is the president of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.
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