Sunday, November 17, 2013

Wrens in Late Fall and Winter

The Winter Wren is a wren species we are more likely to find in November
You can tell that something's not quite right with the climate when the advent of normal seasonal temperatures can surprise you. It has been seasonably cold in Central New York where our nature preserve is located, and the wildlife have been quick to adopt their winter habits. A few seem to have been caught more off guard than others. Today I found a Catbird in a snow covered tangle of grape vines. I must say, the bird didn't seem a bit pleased, but at least he had plenty of food close at hand - even if it was frozen. It's not that unusual to find a lone Catbird lingering into late fall or even into early winter, but the vast majority of them move to milder regions - usually closer to the Atlantic coast or to the southern states; some will go to the tropics of Central America.
The Gray Catbird perches among snow covered grape vines
By this time of year House Wrens should have all gone south
Several days ago there seemed to be a House Wren skulking about not far from the nest boxes that they use in the summer. House Wren are only rarely to be found lingering this far north in November. All of them without exception should be in the southern US by this time of year. Still I was convinced that I heard the House Wren's characteristic warning  rattle. I tried to lure it out by making "spishing" sounds, but the bird didn't react in the expected wren-like manner. Usually Wrens are aggressive and curious and are quick to investigate any strange sounds or alarm calls given by other birds. I wondered if this bird's health was somehow compromised. Perhaps some ailment or injury was inhibiting his aggressive impulses and maybe the same problem was affecting his ability to migrate. It could just be that the species is normally more introverted outside of the breeding season, which is typical of many species. After all at this time of year they have no mates, nests or young to defend. A few days later I heard the bird call again and that time I was able to visually confirm that it was a House Wren – although the bird didn't stay visible for more than a few seconds.
In summer - a House Wren singing from one of his claimed nest boxes

During the breeding season - a Winter Wren with a beak-full of insects and spiders
In our region there are 2 wren species that we expect to find in winter. They are the Winter Wren and the Carolina Wren. These 2 species are most commonly responsible for erroneous reports of late season House Wrens. It’s true that during migration the Winter Wren may sometimes be found in and about brush-filled ditches, wood piles or suburban lawns, but for the most part their winter habitat is much the same as their breeding habitat. They prefer dark damp forests, wooded stream-sides and shady swamps.
In summer - a fledgling Winter Wren waits for its parent to return with food
The Carolina Wren visiting a bird feeder in winter
The unusual sight of a House Wren taking bird seed
The Winter Wren (only 4" long) is the darkest and smallest of our Wrens
The Winter Wren is noticeably smaller than the House Wren and it appears much darker brown. Its tail is cocked at an even more extreme angle than that of the House Wren - if you can believe that.  In just about every way it is like a more extreme versions of the House Wren. Behavior wise the Winter Wren also differs much from the House Wren. They tend to fly very low and close to the ground. Their nervous manner and close association to the ground makes them seem more mouse-like than bird-like. When they are disturbed they will give a quick double noted harsh call that sounds like “teep-teep”. They sometimes give volley of these notes while making their getaway.
Note the Carolina Wren's bold white eye-stripe
As I wrote in a recent blog post, the Robins that winter with us are not the same individuals that spend the breeding season with us. The same is true with the Winter Wren. Like the Robins, the ones that are here now likely spent the breeding season in the north. It’s quite a different story with the Carolina Wren. They are a non-migratory species. In other words they stay near their breeding grounds all year long and they don't move to warmer climes for the winter. Though perhaps sometimes they may wish they had. The literature states that Carolina Wren populations in northern regions tend to crash after a harsh winter, but recent data from out own region doesn't quite hold to that concept. Over the past 10 years, we've experienced both harsh winters and mild winters and yet we've experienced little perceptible change in Carolina Wren numbers. It could be that this bird’s ability to make use of bird feeding stations has made all the difference. They are quick to take advantage of suet feeders as well as occasionally taking seed. Years ago I used to leave raisins on our porch for our own appreciative Carolina Wrens.
This Carolina Wren is not injured - just sprawled out and taking a sun bath
The Carolina Wren (5.5" long) is noticeably larger than the House Wren (4.75" long). Its plumage is more reddish-brown as opposed to the gray-brown color of the House Wren. They also have a prominent white eye stripe and a longer bill. Since they often occur in the same habitat as House Wrens, most supposed House Wren sightings that take place in wintertime are usually Carolina Wrens.
The Marsh Wren looks similar to the Carolina Wren, but they are a very rare site in winter

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