Did you like the game of hide-and-seek as a child? If so, then birding for wrens will likely strike you as extra fun. As a clan, they are some of the Bay Area’s most secretive little birds, more often heard than seen. A flash of clay or chestnut in the scrub or reeds, the flick of a tail, the glimpse of a bright black eye, tantalizing the birder who will stand there for minutes at a time, yearning to make a correct identification.
Today, we’ll turn our gaze on Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii, one of the larger SF Bay Area Wrens. My Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, says Bewick’s Wren is a year-round resident, but I see the bird so sporadically, I can’t confirm this from my own experience, and Sibley has been wrong on occasion in this regard. Measuring an average of 5.25″ from beak to tail, Bewick’s Wren, like most wrens, will instantly strike you as being ‘all-tail’. With the exception of the Winter Wren, which looks like it has almost no tail, wrens have some of the most splendid, striped tails on the local birding scene. Identification clue number one for wrens is that they tend to hold their tails up-turned, as if proud of their lovely plumes.
Again, like most wrens, their movements through the brush are flickering, turning this way and that, seeming to flash from branch to branch rather than flap or fly. Whenever I see Bewick’s Wren, I am struck by how nuthatch-like he is, not only in his movements, but in his overall shape. The long beak, small oval body and stiff tail are all reminiscent of the White-breasted Nuthatch. The Brown Creeper also comes strongly to mind when looking at wrens.
Color is very important in identifying wrens. Some are a rich, burnished copper, others a duller brown. Bewick’s Wren’s overall hue is somewhat muddy, with gleams of chestnut in his long tail. But the most important identification mark on this bird is his prominent white eyebrow. It stands out quite clearly from his brown and grey tones, and the other thing to observe is the overall plainness of his back and shoulders which are unmarked.
Comparing Bewick’s Wren to the Marsh Wren
At right, you will see my illustration of a Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris. I felt it would be helpful for local birders to compare these 2 birds to see the differences between them. Wren identification can be challenging for new birders, because all wrens tend to be brownish, striped beings. In differentiating between these 2 wrens, you will have two big clues:
1) Markings – Scroll back and forth between the Marsh Wren and Bewick’s Wren. Yes, they both have those white eyebrows. But look at the backs of the birds. The black striped patch of the Marsh Wren instantly confirms who he is, and lets you see how much plainer the Bewick’s Wren is by comparison. Overall, the rich chestnut tones of the smaller Marsh Wren are much more vivid than the soft browns of Bewick’s.
2) Habitat – This is a major factor. Bewick’s Wren inhabits the understorey brush of coniferous and deciduous forests, where he is at home with his secretive habits, hiding amongst bracken. By contrast, the Marsh Wren’s name correctly identifies his home – in the reeds around ponds and in wetlands.
Other local wrens include the House Wren and the Winter Wren. Each has it’s own markings and habitat. So, very often, getting a correct I.D. involves the birder asking, “where are the stripes?” and, “what is the habitat I’m in?”
Further field notes on Bewick’s Wren
Though not quite as much like the old electric-typewriter-gone-haywire calls of the Marsh Wren, the Bewick’s Wren’s song is complex, consisting of metallic trills and buzzes, not exactly musical, but very fascinating to hear in the forest. The long, down-curved beak of this bird is an important tool, as you might guess, enabling him to pry into crevices and along the ground for insects and spiders. Bewick’s Wrens nest in cavities or holes and 4-7 white or pink speckled eggs are common. Patience and good ear birding are often your best tools in honing in on this charming and interesting local bird.
Where to see Bewick’s Wren in Sonoma County
As the accompanying map will show, Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, California, yet again proves itself superior birding habitat when it comes to Bewick’s Wren. When you go through the toll booth, turn right into the upper parking lot, drive to the far end of the lot and park near the narrow trail entrance by the eucalyptus grove. In addition to being great woodpecker habitat, and a good spot for migratory warblers, this grove of trees has become our likely spot for Bewick’s Wren. About halfway between the entrance of this short trail and the ‘t’ it comes to out in the sun at the end of it, on the left hand side of the path, there is a scrubby area where we have repeatedly seen a pair of Bewick’s Wrens, and with patience, have gotten excellent up close views. Bring a picnic, bring your birding binoculars and have a fabulous day in this wonderful park.
It’s October now, so keep an eye out in the park for Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Oak Titmice, Stellar’s Jays, Pileated, Downy, Nuttall’s and Acorn Woodpeckers, Flickers, the last of the Western Tanagers, Western Bluebirds and White-breasted Nuthatches. Soon, the fantastic Varied Thrushes should be flying into the park. Last year – the winter 2006/2007 season – was an irruptive year for the Varied Thrush, bringing us more of these birds than normal, and Jack London State Park was literally spangled with them. Oh, things are getting exciting in the birding world this month. Keep your eyes open!
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