Category Archives: Fun

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.


[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:; doi:10.2173/bna.308

UK’s Blogging Red Kites

Blogging Birds is the name of a web-site run by a group of researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in conjunction with members of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The site’s byline, The lives of red kites, told by computers, sums up what the site is all about.

Red Kites 5 (5939879892) The Red kite is a species of raptor that, according to the web site, was once widespread in the UK and, after having been almost extirpated (down to 10 breeding pairs in Wales in the 1940’s) is making something of a comeback.

What the researchers have done is to fit several birds with satellite transmitters that provide accurate positions for the birds several times per day. These can be plotted on a map which anyone can see online. So far, pretty cool, but there’s more!

In addition to the geo-tracking, the researchers have linked in information from other databases that tell them about the areas visited by the birds. They know if an area is urban or rural and, based on land use information, can guess at how a bird might be feeding itself. They also know when a kite is near its home turf or if it is exploring far outside its normal range. Finally, if their path crosses that of one of the other tracked kites, they have information about their possible interactions with others of their species.

The final piece that let’s them create blog postings on behalf of the kites is something called Natural Language Generation which synthesizes all the data with known kite behaviour and spits out the weekly computer generated postings that anyone can see. Looking at the web-site today I see that they have four blogs on tap for the kites: Wyvis, Moray, Millie and Ussie. There appear to be other tracked kites as well with one of them, Beauly, mentioned in Millie‘s latest post for the week of August 12 to 18.

It will be interesting to follow one or more of the kites over longer periods of time. Perhaps these blogs can help to reduce the animosity that once almost led to the Red Kite’s extirpation from the British Isles.


Of the three most common North American kites, the Red Kite is closest taxonomically to the Mississippi Kite of the south-eastern US sharing the same sub-family (Milvinae) but different genera. The White-tailed and Swallow-tailed Kites are both from a different sub-family (Elaninae). All of these kites are from the family Accipitridae of diurnal birds of prey.

The related species of Black Kite is sometimes seen in England, usually during migration. Both it and the Red Kite are from the same genus Milvus and have been known to hybridize.

Birding Song Parodies by Young Birders

A couple of mornings ago, I came across the following ABA blog post by ABA president Jeff Gordon: Ladies and Gentlemen, LIVE from Camp Avocet…Pish & Twitch!!!. For anyone who likes birding and musical parodies it’s worth a listen (I missed breakfast and was almost late for a dentist appointment trying to make it through the YouTube links).

In a nutshell: Camp Avocet is an ABA run summer camp for young birders and Pish & Twitch is a musical duo newly formed by two of the campers Caleb and Brendan. Following a long tradition in song parody, they took well-known tunes and replaced the lyrics to poke fun at, in this case, birding and birders. Five songs were recorded and can be found on YouTube, through the links in Jeff’s article.

The first three songs (in posted order) used contemporary tunes the only one of which I recognized was their second song “Moves Like Jaeger” which was obviously a parody of the Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera hit “Moves Like Jagger”. The other two tunes were lifers for me once I made identifications with the help of my phone’s SoundHound app.  The first song “Chase Me Maybe” about going after rare bird sightings, covered “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Japsen and the third tune, about night-time bird call identification, “Flight Calls”, used the melody (if you can call it that) from “Thrift Shop” by “Party DJ Rockerz”.

The final two songs were based on well known hits from my own youth. The first of these was “Migrants Go By” sung to the Don Mclean hit “American Pie”. Impressively, they covered the 8-plus-minute long version and not one of the shorter radio-friendly variants. And finally, the song, “Bill Stewart”, clearly aimed at all of the camp leaders, was sung to the Billy Joel hit “Piano Man”.

It wasn’t what you might call a ‘tight’ performance as they had obviously bitten off more than they had time to practice for but that did not seem to detract from the energy in the room.  Besides, the hard part of a parody is crafting the lyrics and there they did some excellent work.

If you are a part or or even just familiar with birding culture then you will probably enjoy listening to Pish and Twitch.

Sandhill Crane Adventure at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary

Squawking Sandhill Crane(for J & C – You know who you are!)

Last Sunday I went to the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Delta BC.  I spent about 3 hours wandering around watching birds and taking pictures of anything interesting. In the end, however, about two-thirds of the pictures were of Sandhill Cranes.

It wasn’t that there were hundreds or thousands of them and almost nothing else – in fact, there were only about a dozen or so I never saw more than 4 in a group. No, the real reasons that I took so many Sandhill Crane pictures were that:

  • Several of the cranes were relatively tame and did not fly away when I approached.
  • It is a lot easier to take pictures of a crane than a chickadee.
  • The cranes were in my way, blocking the path in the direction that I was going.

One quick side comment:  During my visit I watched people feeding both cranes and chickadees right out of their hand (the chickadee had to land on the hand first which – obviously – the crane did not do).  Personally, I would feel safer feeding the chickadee. Up close, a crane bill looks like it can deliver a pretty hard poke.

Anyways, when I showed up at the sanctuary, I didn’t really expect to see Sandhill Cranes at all. I had been there a week earlier with a photography group that I recently joined and we had only heard a single crane calling (which we didn’t even get to see). Imagine my surprise when, walking one of the paths through the middle of the sanctuary, I ran into a group of cranes along the path ahead of me. Here are two of them:
Sandhill Cranes

These two were but half of a posse of 4 adult birds blocking the path. Here are 3 of them checking me out. You can just see the fourth hidden behind the foliage on the right.
Sandhill Cranes

I must not have been very threatening as they proceeded to turn their backs and head back along the path in the direction that I was hoping to go (though I would have preferred a less leisurely pace).
Sandhill Cranes

I finally made it around the bend in the path.

Hey, nice ‘digs’!

Apparently they were squatting in one of the prettiest parts of the sanctuary.
Sandhill Cranes

All I needed to do was get past these three who did not appear to be paying me much attention.  How about along the edge of the pond?
Sandhill Cranes

Hey! You’re not cranes! This story is supposed to be about cranes!  Still, pretty cool. It was two mallards, one leucistic (missing some pigment making them look white – not albinism though).
Leucistic Mallard ?

Anyways, back to sneaking past the cranes…

Drat! Spotted!

They may seem tame but there’s no point in getting too close. Time to backtrack and go around.
Auto Tone-1030316

I turned back and went up the North edge of the sanctuary past the viewing tower. I watched some Dowitchers and Yellowlegs on my way by one of the larger ponds and then headed South briefly spotting my nemesis bird, the Marsh Wren, who was no doubt sticking his tongue out at me as he dove into the long grass.

I had walked most of the way down the West edge of the sanctuary when I encountered 2 more cranes, even friendlier than the first 4. The crane on the left was cleaning up a spot on the ground where I suspect someone had dropped a handful of crane-food – some kind of coarse seed mixture. The crane on the right was keeping an eye out – whether for threats or treats was unclear.
Cranes blocking the path

What was obvious was that they were quite tame allowing me to get close – really close.
Crane (with Long Grass)

This must be a good snacking spot. At one point a trio of people showed up and one of them offered the cranes a handful of something – more crane kibble probably – that they seemed to like a lot as they took it straight out of the person’s hand.

I imagined the crane thinking: “A teensy nip, he drops the goods and no-one gets hurt” (or is that “hoit”?).
Cleaning up after messy humans

So maybe it was an ambush spot too! There we were, blocked by a pair of ruthless sandhills forcing all passers-by to empty their pockets.

There was no way that I was giving up my bag of cashews.

Lucky for me, there was a distraction – a group of three sandhills flew overhead heading out into the marsh that separated the sanctuary from the open water of the Strait of Georgia.
Sandhill Cranes in Flight

A short time later, a second group of 4 flying cranes appeared. This group, however, let out a group call as they passed overhead. I must say, these are pretty loud birds with quite a bit of lung-power behind their calls. It was clearly some kind of message because the two birds not 10 feet ahead squawked in return.
Crane Duet 3/5

They got in a couple of rounds of noisy calls before the flying group were out of range.  It was an award winning performance.

Envelope please!

… and the winner of the Squawky goes to …
Crane Calling

The squawking was over and the people with crane-kibble in their pockets had left.  I finally slipped by and headed for the exit and that was the end of my Sandhill Crane Adventure.

More on Sandhill Cranes at the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary has resident Sandhill Cranes that live there year round (and has had for about 30 years).  While other groups of cranes will come and go, when the breeding season comes around only the resident pair will remain to nest and try to raise a family.  Last year (2012) they had one chick that unfortunately died.

The sanctuary has lots more pictures and information on their Sandhill Cranes page.