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Marsh-shrub Leaper

February 3, 2011
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For the last couple years that I’ve traveled to Massachusetts to take part on the Super Bowl of birding along with a select group of great birders and bird bloggers, our team captain Christopher – he of Picus Blog – has had something special staked out for us.  In past years he’s truly outdone himself.  Year one required a trip into New Hampshire but the payoff was a completely mind-blowing  Northern Hawk-Owl. That’s hard to top, but last year we all enjoyed a staked out Common Chaffinch that may well have been the best bird I saw all of 2010.  But this year was the first one that Christopher didn’t have anything exciting, not owl nor finch, to show us.

Not that it would have mattered.  When I arrived at high noon at Boston’s scenic Logan Airport, I was the first to touch down in Massachusetts.  Mike was making the trek out from western New York and would be a couple hours yet.  Corey, Andrew, and John were driving up from NYC, and making a stop at a spot for Green-tailed Towhee (ask them about that…) on the way.  They wouldn’t arrive until nearly dark.  So for a couple hours it was just Christopher and me.  What to do?

Christopher took me out into western Middlesex County to the Great Meadows NWR, a vast expanse of what, in a warmer time of the year, would be marshland, but for now was a wide open field of snow.  Except for one little footbridge, beneath which, in the only open water in the refuge, lived in true troglodyte fashion, a little Marsh Wren.

Too often in North Carolina I’m familiar with Marsh Wrens as chittering noises in a dense saltmarsh or, if I’m really lucky, the briefest of looks at a chestnut hued blur as it imitates a reed-dwelling jack-in-the-box; a broken one of course, as once it goes down it never ever comes back up no matter how long you turn that crank.  What I’m saying is that their not the easiest birds to get a good look at, let along photos.

But not this bird.  It danced on the floating vegetation, peering into the abyss looking for something, anything, to snatch up.  It completely disregarded Christopher and me on the bridge, shutters flying no more than a meter away.

While the Wren’s family name, Troglodytidae, refers to the group’s penchant for dark, enclosed spaces, the Marsh Wren’s is a celebration of the ease at which the bird moves through the ether of cattails and Spartina.

Cistothorus, from the Greek “kistos”, or shrub, and the ‘thorous”, meaning rushing and leaping, a perfectly evocative word for a bird that moves through grass like water.  Add it to palustris, from the latin “palus”, meaning the marsh itself, and you’ve got the Marsh Wren down to a T.

The Wren was active, flashing back and forth under the bridge and working the shallow water right in front of us for some time.  It wasn’t entirely clear what it was looking for until the bird paused for a split second and reached into the water to pull up an enormous insect larva of some kind (if someone can identify it, I’d love to hear it).  And with that it was gone, reappearing farther back in the marsh to sit and preen with what had to be a very full stomach.

It’s no owl or anything, but it was as fun a start as we’d ever had.

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8 Comments
  1. Christopher Ciccone permalink
    February 3, 2011 7:35 am

    Still sorry I couldn’t find us a “mega” but this little guy was pretty fun, and I am so glad we finally got everybody (but you especially) good looks at our King Eiders!

  2. February 3, 2011 9:01 am

    Great shots of this little chatterer! I also love the fact of how present they are in sight and sound and see them abundantly in Constitution Marsh on the Hudson in Garrison NY.

  3. February 3, 2011 10:56 am

    I love Marsh Wrens, and knew what you were writing about as soon as I saw the title. I managed to grab a decent photo of one clinging to a blade of grass with insouciance (ha! had to look up that spelling) several years ago at Turkey Pt, NJ (or somewhere around NJ where there were many mosquitos and great birds). It’s the screen saver on my laptop and makes me smile whenever I boot it up.

  4. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    February 3, 2011 11:01 am

    Wow, that’s an insane look at that Marsh Wren. I can only ever see them through about three feet of reeds and branches, and even then only for a half second or so before they bail somewhere else.

  5. Nate permalink*
    February 3, 2011 11:32 am

    @Christopher- Yeah, that King Eider was something special. I wish I could have gotten some photos. If only I’d brought my point and shoot for digiscoping.

    @Jane- You folks up north are a lot luckier with Marsh Wrens than we are in NC. I hear them every time I get to a coastal marsh, but they can be extremely hard to get a good look at.

    @Donna- Yeah! Another latin-phile! They are such charismatic little birds, like all wrens are really.

    @Robert- Your experiences are very very similar to mine.

  6. February 3, 2011 2:02 pm

    I’ve had some good looks at Marsh Wrens on the Delmarva peninsula at various wildlife refuges. Most of the time, though, they’re just a boisterous song from the reeds.

  7. February 4, 2011 3:22 am

    Wow, the second pic shows how impressively similar their colour and pattern is to Baillon’s Crake, and old world rail that lives in comparable habitats. Now, that’s an impressive piece of co-evolution.

    And WHAT !?? ! ?? You went to the SBofB and forgot to take your point and shoot????
    Is that right????

    @Donna: you had to look up the spelling, I had to look up the meaning! Wow, great “word of the week” for this non-native speaker.

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