How a tough little Marsh Wren proved that miracles do occur
Published: June 24, 2011
|I was rounding the dogleg, the place where Turkey Point Road zigs and zags, when a soft muttering brought me to a stop. Was it real? Had I truly heard that? It seemed unlikely, but...|
It’s been my observation over the years that if you think you might have heard something, you probably did. Yet my hearing is not as good as it used to be (and truth be known, it never was particularly acute). But over the course of 50-odd years, I’ve trained myself to be attuned to whatever audio breadcrumbs the universe drops in my path. Bird calls and songs are, now, basic elements of the environmental matrix that supports me — as important as air, light, smell, and touch.
Put it all together, and you have a reason for getting up in the morning. Take any of the elements away, and you diminish life. Wonder why I walk a transect across the same portion of the universe every morning? It is because the view of the universe from Turkey Point Road is as good as any other.
I know it as well as the binoculars in my hand. I can close my eyes, listen for 10 minutes, and tell you the date, plus or minus two weeks, based upon what I hear (and don’t hear).
Snow Geese, Great Horned Owls, and silence in winter. Willet, Clapper Rails, and Seaside Sparrows in summer. Hosts of migrating shorebirds, songbirds, and early and lingering this-and-thats in spring and fall, but...
Today, March 28, was one of those days that lie in the seasonal crease. Spring by the calendar, but by the thermometer, winter. Most breeding birds side with the thermometer and time their arrival accordingly. To date, only Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Tree Swallow, and Purple Martin had arrived in South Jersey. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Yellow-throated Warbler were imminent. But the majority of our breeding songbirds don’t begin to reach our region until mid-April.
Marsh Wren is one of these. The muttering I’d heard harked to Marsh Wren. If so, the bird was much too early to be a migrant. That could only mean...
“It must have been my imagination or wishful thinking,” I hypothesized. Still, I didn’t move. Feet planted, head cocked, anticipation centers of my brain focused and fully charged, I stood and waited.
Turkey Point Road isn’t just my touchstone to the natural world; it’s my obligation. My personal charge is to be there when the little milestones are passed and miracles happen. Not big miracles necessarily. Everyday miracles.
But big or small, for miracles to happen you need a witness. Without a witness, a Marsh Wren on March 28 is just an overlooked natural phenomenon.
But could this bird truly have survived a winter as harsh as the one past? I’d long since given up the bird for dead.
Three months earlier
The weather was pretty good — good for a Christmas Bird Count, anyway. Temperatures were expected to climb into the 50s during the day. If true, it would be the first time in weeks the thermometer had soared so high.
Warm winters have been the norm in southern New Jersey in this century. Heck, I’ve had butterflies every month of the year. So the winters of 2009 and 2010 came as quite a shock — multiple two-foot snowstorms, temperatures cold enough to freeze an eider, cold spells that dragged on and on.
Roosting half-hardy species like Gray Catbird and Brown Thrasher died on their perches. Great Blue Herons cowered on open ice and starved where they stood. Even birds as tough as American Black Ducks were cowed by the cold, falling prey to the Bald Eagles that lord over South Jersey’s marshes.
So on the morning of the Cumberland County Christmas Bird Count (CBC), January 2, I was patrolling my assigned territory — Turkey Point Road. Birds were just waking up. Waterfowl, primarily Black Ducks and Common Mergansers, were flying. I’d just picked up an American Woodcock (and felt really lucky about it) and was on the hunt for Virginia Rail, which was possible, and Sedge Wren, which was hardly possible, and...
Marsh Wren! Formerly Long-billed Marsh Wren. Nimble but surreptitious. During the breeding season, the birds are widespread across much of southern Canada and the U.S. But come winter, they retreat into the deep south and to the coasts, occurring as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, in the west and, you guessed it, extreme South Jersey in the east. It hasn’t always been this way.
In my teens in the 1960s, the mere report of a Marsh Wren in New Jersey in January would require reams of documentation. Forty years later, I am finding birds on almost every CBC — two to three on average.
On this count, the brackish marsh at the dogleg is my Marsh Wren hotspot. Three years ago, eight birds wintered there — about half successfully. Two years ago, an equal number tried and died — victims of one of the harshest winters New Jersey had experienced in decades.
This winter started with a contingent of five or six birds along with a couple of Sedge Wrens. Then came December’s snows and prolonged cold. As the days mounted, Marsh Wren numbers fell. With every passing week, fewer mutterings emanated from the reeds. By month’s end, only a single bird remained, one hardy Marsh Wren with a heart strong enough to stand up to a bitter winter. Could it last until January 2?
It did. The planet’s toughest Marsh Wren vocalized on the morning of the count. A half mutter. A mutter I might have missed had I not been listening for it.
I considered pishing the bird into view to be certain but decided against it. One of the tenets of responsible birding is not stressing birds needlessly. While not bitter, it was cold enough. There seemed no reason to make the bird waste precious energy just for a look.
Winter dragged on. Some mornings, if I timed my walk right, I’d hear my wren. Most mornings I did not.
Then, in early February, my wife Linda and I traveled to Extremadura, in western Spain, to get a jump on spring. We returned two weeks later to a state still firmly in winter’s grip.
The wren? Nothing. Not a mutter to be heard. Every morning I paused and listened. Every morning I was greeted by silence. During our absence, it seemed, my little wren had passed from mutter to mute, and as the weeks passed so too did even my recollection of the bird.
A mutter that mattered
“It must have been my imagination,” I said again, but still I didn’t move. Call it tenacity. Call it a sixth sense. Call it dedication to duty. A miracle was in the air, and it was my job to witness it.
The sound came again — a mutter that vaulted weeks and hardships and slapped Old Man Winter right in the face, a mutter that mattered.
The morning was plenty cold, but it wasn’t January or February anymore. Thrashers were singing. Seaside Sparrows were vocalizing. A strong spring sun was poised to shed its warmth upon the earth.
I made a wren-calibrated pishing sound, a descending stutter that stirs the curiosity of wrens when all else fails.
Almost immediately, I saw motion in the reeds. Seconds later, the bird hopped into view, hitched up a reed, and peered into my face with beady, chastising eyes.
“You win,” I said. “I’m the goat. I hope you win the best breeding territory in the marsh for your reward. You earned it.”
Miracles come in many forms. Today it was wrapped in a wren. I don’t know what miracle tomorrow will bring. A big one or a small one. Only one thing I can promise you: I’ll be there to greet it.
And the Miracle Wren? I wouldn’t bet against him if I were you.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.