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A Pacific Wren dilemma

November 4, 2010

Earlier this year, when the American Ornithologist’s Union formally approved the split of the very soul of Wren-dom, the quintessential Troglodytid, Winter Wren into Winter Wren in the east and Pacific Wren in the west, many birders across the continent rejoiced at the armchair tick, the addition by one of a bird to their life list by virtue of a taxonomic decision.  After all, Winter Wrens (and Pacific Wrens too) are a common species across the whole of their range, and it you’ve spent any time at all birding in that range you’ve likely turned one up.  Adding Pacific Wren to your life list, or the new incarnation of Winter Wren if you’re a left coaster, is simply a matter of looking back over your notes, finding Troglodytes troglodytes in the other’s range, and relaxing to enjoy the celebratory beverage of your choice one life bird richer.

Unless, of course, you’re like me and you’ve never seen the bird that’s now being called a Pacific Wren, because my birding on the western half of North America is sadly incomplete.  Or so I thought.

I happened to be perusing some old lists from a trip to Wyoming in 2008 that I hadn’t entered into eBird when I noticed that I had written Winter Wren on a day list from a morning spent birding at Grand Tetons National Park.  My first impression was, wow, unexpected lifer! But as I began to really consider the sighting doubts began to creep in.  For starters, I couldn’t remember a single thing about this alleged Winter Wren.  That, in and of itself, is not so unusual; there is certainly no shortage of bird sightings, especially early on, where my memory has more or less failed me.  But I remember this day well, even if my attention was on the Western Grebes, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Red-naped Sapsuckers that were the clear and present lifers right in front of me rather than what I probably considered to be just another Winter Wren, not terribly different than the ones I’d see in North Carolina several months later.

That said, I apparently saw enough of a bird to write down Winter Wren and, as I generally trust my own Wren identification ability, I was not willing to toss the sighting out of hand just yet.  At least until I looked back at a fabulous post by David Sibley attempting to nail down the ranges of the new split species.  Grand Tetons is in the far western part of Wyoming, not far from the species known range in western Montana, but the area where I saw this individual is still deep in the dark gray area where there remain significant questions.  This wren is quickly becoming far less cut and dried.

Ok, so I’m getting worried.  I’m starting to question my own ability to identify a Winter Wren (Pacific Wren, whatever).  I shoot over to eBird to find that Winter Wren is hardly a regularly reported species in the state (though half of the sightings are indeed at Grand Tetons NP).  And finally, when all hope seems lost I turn to the guru of Wyoming birding and author of the ABA Birder’s Guide to Wyoming, Oliver Scott, who says of Winter Wrens:

Rare resident – It used to be that one could go along with the mob of tourists up Cascade Canyon from Jenny Lake in Grand Tetons National Park to the fork in Cascade Creek… Above the roar of the fork one could hear the voice of the Winter Wren.  Then, after a few years, they were no longer there.

Granted, this was written in 1993, but it’s still pretty damning.  There are no answers, it only suggest more questions.

So what to do?  First off, do I trust my ability to call a Winter Wren as opposed to say, a House Wren, even if it turns out it’s something of an unusual bird for where I was?  Or do I toss it out as questionable given the fact that I likely wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I considered a “common bird” to be able to make the unquestionable identification, probably because I was busy looking at other stuff and because I was completely unfamiliar with the area.

If it is a Winter Wren, am I justified in considering it a potential Pacific Wren given how little we know about the eastern edge of their range?  And could I count it guilt free?

I’m leaning towards letting it go, removing the species from my list or marking it simply ‘wren sp’, as there’s certainly reasonable doubt here.   But I’m curious as to what you’d do in a similar situation.  Do you count it or no?

Pacific Wren by tbtalbottjr via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)

  1. November 4, 2010 7:26 am

    The only obvious solution is to go back there and help map out the range limits of the species 🙂

  2. November 4, 2010 8:13 am

    There’s no objective answer to that as it completely depends on your very own and personal list rules. Okay, you know this and this is the reason why you ask us what we would do, not what we think you should do…

    I very likely wouldn’t count it, and here’s why:

    1 – If you don’t even remember the encounter, an armchair tick is highly dissatisfactory. It is quite nice now, but it will take away the joy of getting your “real”, memorable lifer once you travel to the West (which you are quite likely to do during the course of your life, or not?).
    2 – You were an outsider, unfamiliar with the area and its birds, and this (I found by judging myself critically during my travels) is one of the most common and fundamental sources for ID mistakes (for me, others’ mileage might vary). Your observation was likely just a glance (or you would remember it), and this might have been influenced by your expectations based on your birding experiences in the Midwest and East. You just can’t be certain, without doubting your general capability of identifying wrens.
    3 – Judging by the eBird files, it is quite unlikely (although not impossible), and if it is a bird that needs documenting to the local rarities committee, you probably wouldn’t be able to report it (no memory) and it would thus stand no chance of being accepted. Now, I don’t strictly follow the rulings of rarities committees when it comes to my life list, but it certainly has an influence on what I count or do not count.

    The most important reason for me not to count it would be No 1, the taking away of birding excitement. Any armchair tick is not very thrilling, and you are losing out on possible future joy. You are basically trading long-term gain for a bit of short-term joy, like quickly eating up all the blueberries before they get turned into a much nicer-tasting and larger cake.

  3. November 4, 2010 8:29 am

    Was this a breeding season visit? I’d feel more confident in that time of year. I know Colorado seems to be pretty split between eastern and western migrants so I’d be less sure at other times.

    Wyoming also seems to be pretty underbirded, I wouldn’t be surprised if eBird is still showing a pretty incomplete picture of the state.

    And what Nick and Jochen said.

  4. November 4, 2010 9:52 am

    I always think that “easy” birds (and it is, because I have no doubt that one day you will find the time and money to go for a nice trip in California or west of the rockies) should be 100% sure, and not twitched, so you can enjoye the “tick” at its fullest.

    This is the reason why I still miss some really easy birds on my county list, just because I know that one day, a purple finch will show up at my feeder, one day I will hear a louisiana waterthrush somewhere in one of the parks of Ann Arbor, one day I will have a picture record of a greater scaup.

    I noticed, BTW, that ebird did not automatically updated the winter wren from my california trip this year as a pacific wren. I probably need to take a look at that

  5. Nate permalink*
    November 4, 2010 10:10 am

    @Nick- Would that I could!

    @Jochen- You have laid out, in a much more succinct manner, the reasoning I’m generally employing. Pacific Wren would not be a difficult bird for me to find on a future trip west, and your reason #2 is absolutely correct. It is possible that when I saw the wren, I made an assumption that Winter Wren would be the default species marked it as such, when in reality I really should have been thinking House Wren. It’s a simple case of observer expectation bias.

    @Jason- It was in early August, which is the peak period for Winter Wrens in the area according to Oliver Scot, which does complicate matters. And you’re no doubt correct that Wyoming is probably significantly under-ebirded.

    @Laurent- That’s a good at to look at it actually. And regarding the updating of your California eBird record, as I understand it, the eBird gurus are still trying to decide what to do about that, and it’s proven to be a rather complicated issue. There was a very long and in-depth discussion about this very thing on the eBird reviewer listserv. They’ll likely switch your bird over at some point though, California records seem pretty cut and dried, it’s the in-betweeners that are causing problems.

    • November 4, 2010 12:54 pm

      The full magnitude of No 2 (expectation bias) was quite apparent each time I returned to Germany from a 6-months-long stay in Namibia (three times): you won’t believe the amount of southern African bird species I was suddenly “seeing” in Germany. Each Common Magpie was “identified” as a Pied Crow, all female Redstarts were Familiar Chats etc.
      It took a few WEEKS each time to re-adapt to the region when it comes to these quick IDs by “intuition”.
      Having said that – it might very well have been a Winter Wren.

  6. November 4, 2010 12:34 pm

    I agree with what the other commenters said. If this were my sighting, I might put it down as “wren sp.” and add a species comment saying that I identified it as a Winter Wren at the time, but that I couldn’t be sure of the sighting after further review. I think that solution would keep an electronic record of the sighting without reducing the excitement of a (future) definitive look at a Pacific Wren or making a definitive statement about which wren is present in western Wyoming.

    • November 4, 2010 12:54 pm

      I do think you would have known the difference between a house wren and a winter wren even back in the dark ages. The winter/pacific wren is so specific in look and especially in voice so I would call it.

  7. jmj permalink
    November 4, 2010 12:51 pm

    yeah, if it were my list, I’d throw it out (or file it as ‘wren sp’). If I were to count it, I would never feel good about it. I’ve done things like that in the past, but before long, the doubt gnaws at me until I end up removing the questionable sightings. But it’s obviously a personal decision.

  8. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    November 4, 2010 1:01 pm

    If you don’t remember the sighting, it’s very possible that you only heard the bird, and at that point it wouldn’t go on my life list (personally) because I only count ‘seen’ birds. On the other hand, I find that my ID skills are good enough that I likely got a field bird correct even if I question my ID later. So you probably did see/hear a Winter Wren out there (I found a wren in the San Bernardino mountains this summer, hoping for Pacific, but I only turned up a measly House) but on the basis of uncertain sighting and uncertain range, I probably wouldn’t count it.

  9. November 4, 2010 3:29 pm

    Sounds like you saw a Grand Teton Wren. Or a Wyoming Wren. Or maybe a Northern Central Wren. In any case, since you were in the “gray area” of Pacific/Winter Wrendom I would wait for a trip to California or Washington state to oficially count it.

  10. November 4, 2010 5:09 pm

    I keep checking eBird so that I can change my Winter Wren to Pacific Wrens. Now I just need to see a real eastern Winter Wren. Can you help me with that?

  11. November 4, 2010 6:59 pm

    It’s easier to make these decisions when it’s not one’s own life list. If I had ever been to Grand Teton and had this problem, the eventual decision would “go to the jury,” which is just my way of saying I need to mull things over for a while, sometimes with much gnashing of teeth.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t take it. I did get Pacific Wren as an armchair tick, but that was a coastal Oregon bird (I also got the trifecta with a European Wren from Finland). Since the range is still so debatable, and you have no notes or real memory of the bird, I wouldn’t take it. Let’s put it this way: I once saw a Blue Grouse (pre-split) along a roadside in Oregon, but have yet to figure out whether or not it was a Dusky or Sooty Grouse (post-split), since I’m still foggy on the respective ranges. I might have to let that one go.

    But it’s your list, and keep it as you see fit. 😉

  12. Nate permalink*
    November 4, 2010 10:06 pm

    @John- Yup, we’re on the same page.

    @Jane- That’s kind of you to take my word and I generally would assume I know the difference too, which is what led me to initially accept the bird, but as I can’t remember a dang thing about the sighting, all those doubts creep in. Because we as birders all make mistakes, even whoppers like House and Winter Wren, and I don’t know enough about the circumstances surrounding the sighting to say yes, I saw Winter Wren (or Pacific Wren, but you get what I’m saying). By the way, if I ever see a rare sandpiper or something, I want you on the Rare Bird Committee. 😉

    @Robert- Yeah, I considered that I only heard it, but knowing how I go into a new birding area like Wyoming was (and still is), I probably wouldn’t have counted a heard wren. And even then, since I can’t remember whether it was heard or seen it’s a non-starter. Though, since I don’t count heard birds either that might be enough to discount it.

    @Pat- Yup, which just means I need to get to California or Oregon or Washington ASAP!

    @Robert (Birding is Fun) – I sure can. I haven’t seen one yet this winter but they should be here in good numbers in the next couple weeks.

    @Jennifer- Yeah, I’m inclined to let it go for the reasons you suggest. I suppose I’ll just have to be happy with the Euro Wren out of that split. But I’d like the trifecta too, I’ll just have to get it out west one of these days. 🙂

    • November 5, 2010 6:56 am

      Oh, you Americans are so decadent in not counting heard birds. All it would take are a couple’ Acrocephalus and Locustella warblers and you’d change your minds in no time! 😉
      Well, maybe Nate, when the only species left for you in North America are Black and Yellow Rail, we might get talking about that again…


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