27 November 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. The inspiration for My Bird of the Day is the bird which, no matter how dismal the day, how slim the pickings, makes me say wow! There always one that makes the day.
Today it was an unexpected trio: a House Wren, a Carolina Wren and finally a Winter Wren, all at the same place and time. That sort of happy conjunction doesn’t happen very often. I remember some ten or maybe fifteen years ago having all seven of our woodpecker species in sight at the same time. It was early fall as I recall and taken individually all were more or less to be expected sightings. Today’s three wrens were a different matter, only the Carolina Wren could reasonably be anticipated.
The day was unusually warm but as I went about my census walk there was rain on its way. It started falling gently as I was finishing up but most of the walk was dry and for a while all was quiet. Good old Mallards, fifty of them, were milling around in the shallow woodland ponds and connecting watercourses. A lovely dark brown Mink was watching three of them closely. I have no doubt the Mink would make short work of a Mallard if it got the chance, this one seemed to be weighing up the risks of staying around in the hope of duck dinner against any potential threat my arrival posed.
I sometimes wonder what to make of my six-and-a-bit-decade ears. As I walk these census rounds I hear, or think I hear, little high-frequency squeaks and chips that are impossible to pinpoint. I wonder am I nearly-hearing Brown Creepers above and around me, or is it just unseen chickadees? Brown Creepers are a possibility but much of their song is out of my range and I was lucky enough to see three of them this morning.
It was during a hard-listening pause as I was trying to decide whether I was hearing something or nothing that things changed. I picked up a distant rasping chip, it sounded like a Song Sparrow (but unlikely I thought, they should have headed south a couple of weeks ago). I caught a far-off sibilant ’chack’ of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, then the maybe-Song-Sparrow again, now a Blue Jay scream or two. These, and more started to sound like alarm notes and when that happens, I look for a predator menace: a Coyote, an owl or a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk perhaps. With that a Red-tailed Hawk drifted past and settled high in a leafless White Oak tree; now I understood.
But that minor disturbance seemed to have been a wake-up call and there were now birds all around. Perhaps my hearing had switched on, or was I a new menace? I heard a few short, mechanical ‘bzzzt’ from deep in the dogwood tangle, it turned out to belong to a curious House Wren who had come to inspect me; I was surprised, almost shocked; it should have flown south long ago. I gave it an asterisk in my field book – bird of the day. A Song Sparrow appeared in front of me, and then another, so there are a few lingerers. A couple of American Tree Sparrows and a Dark-eyed Junco joined in the fun, and then off to the right a Carolina Wren started a musical purring. The piece de resistance was the cameo appearance of a Winter Wren who watched me for a second or two and then vanished into the deep undergrowth tangles. As I stood a little bemused at this late autumn richness, the Winter Wren sang its musical cascade of little notes from not far away.
This is perhaps a long account of what, at another time of year, would be just another day in the field. But I was thrilled to have had three wren species in front of me at once, and the appearances of the Song Sparrow was a bit of a surprise too. It makes me wonder if this little corner will turn out to harbour a number of out-of-the-ordinary winter birds. It’s an area of open water, pond margins, cattail marsh, thick deep grasses and woodland undergrowth; all of which amounts to shelter, food and survival. I’ll be watching closely.