One Photograph- Little Bird, Big Song

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Little Bird, Big Song
The Sedge Wren
Story and Photo by William Burt

Sedge wren singing, Benson County, ND, June 1992 © William Burt.

When I was a bird-crazy boy, I soon found that my precious Peterson Field Guide was a wellspring of not only inspiration, but abiding agony. Here was the bird you’d seen all right, portrayed in all its gratifying detail, but then dangled on the page were these bewitching beauties that you hadn’t seen; and you could only yearn. So after months of yearning, and exhaustive searching, I was left with a core list of “wish birds” that distracted me no end; and one of these was a rare little brown job called the Short-billed Marsh Wren—or as we know it now, the Sedge Wren.

The Long-billed Marsh Wren (now called simply Marsh Wren) was common enough in my home cattail marshes on the lower Connecticut River, but not this wren; it lived in the far secret meadows of a world beyond. So I read wistfully about the “Short-bills” known to A. C. Bent and other bird men of the past, and hoped that someday, maybe...and then at last—when least I had expected it, of course—it happened.

One musky evening in July I took Dad’s little skiff and motored up the river to a marshy headland flanked by switchgrass fields. I beached the boat, walked up over a berm and out into the switchgrass, and at once heard something new to me, but unmistakable: the abrupt we-be-o! of an Alder Flycatcher, perched in the lower branches of a silver maple. All right! This was a first, for me and for the area as well; but scarcely had it registered than from the grass ahead came the explosive syllables of still another bird I’d never heard before, and this was something truly alien: a few hard punchy chip notes, then a rapid chatter.

The song repeated, and at once a second bird broke out with the same song, just 20 yards away. What in the world...but then it hit me: was it possible? I had to see one of these birds!

I weaved about through the tall grass in chase of one and then the other bird in the dim light, and caught only the briefest glimpses of two tiny, and I do mean tiny birds as they buzzed out, and over, and back down again into the grass. It wasn’t much of a look, but it was look enough: I knew what I had seen.

In July a few years later, in a marshy field about a mile upriver from the first, I was surprised by the percussive chipping of not one, or two, but half a dozen Sedge Wrens; and these birds sang on well into August. Once again I was elated, of course; but I didn’t understand. If these were nesting birds, they would have done their singing back in May and June, like other songbirds; but there were no Sedge Wrens there in May and June. The field had been one of my favorite stomping grounds, and I can tell you that these birds had first appeared in late July.

So, what were they doing there? Something curious was going on here on the lower river, and not three miles from his home, so I thought maybe I’d prevail on Roger Peterson—the ultimate authority—and see what he thought. So when visiting his studio one day, I put it to him: could these wrens be nesting here this late? He pondered it a moment with a look of equal curiosity, as if he too were just a wide-eyed boy, then replied. “I don’t know,” he said.

He was a wonderful man.

I read later of another mystifying appearance of these birds, recounted 30 years before by the late naturalist A. A. Saunders of Fairfield, Connecticut, just 60 miles west of my switchgrass fields along the river. In August 1941 he’d happened on a klatch of Sedge Wrens singing in a grassy area behind Fairfield Beach, where he was certain that “no such bird had been the previous May or June.” Aha...and these wrens too had sung throughout the month, and even on into September; so he naturally concluded that they were fall migrants. But again, these birds had been in song for weeks on end, which leaves a fellow wondering: what were they doing there, so long after their known nesting season?

The only sure fall migrants I’ve encountered in Connecticut (I can recall but two, both in September) were shy skulking characters, and ever silent—except that one bird gave itself away with a lone chip. (The Sedge Wren’s call note can be told by its distinctive “bounce,” or “springy” quality.)

It was years later, in a vast boggy meadow on the plains of southern Manitoba known as Douglas Marsh, that I first got to know the Sedge Wren on its breeding grounds. This sprawling wetland is a good half mile across, and miles to either side. It’s fed beneath by springs, and spongy when you walk on it; and its green sedges swish and squeak as you pass through. It is an awesome wilderness.

My imperative at Douglas was to photograph a rare nocturnal marsh bird called the Yellow Rail, so I too became nocturnal; and what first should meet my ear when I stepped out into the moonlit sedges that first night but the staccato songs of Sedge Wrens. I heard some of the rails as well, thank goodness; but the prevailing calls that night—the mightiest, the most persistent, and most numerous as well—were those of Sedge Wrens.

When wandering the marsh by day I came across a number of their nests, which were tight-woven globular affairs no bigger than a softball, each with a discreet small mouse-hole in the side; but most of these were empty “dummies.” The few active nests I found were better hidden, smaller, and usually much closer to the ground. Indeed, some Sedge Wren nests have been found placed only an inch or two above the mud or water.

But it was at night, when I could move in close and catch one singing in my light, that I first got a good look at the bird itself. It is a delicate and lovely thing, light golden buff below and brown above, and streaked along the back with fine white speckles; and the tail is long, the body slim, the bill a tiny and exacting instrument, just right for insect-tweezing. But the real wonder of this wren lies in its vocal powers. Just how this tidbit of a bird keeps pounding out its notes with such percussive force, and such unflagging energy, I do not know. It’s barely bigger than a kinglet, and not half the weight of the average sparrow: about eight grams, to a Song Sparrow’s 20. It’s the smallest bird of any marsh or meadow, yet its voice is as big as any, and it’s far the most persistent.

When you catch a singing Sedge Wren in your light, you’re first struck by his fixity of grip. With his legs flexed and tarsi locked up some stem or stems at points as far apart as possible, he braces with a look of unshakable rigidity, as if what he’s about to do might knock him loose. The bird and perch are one. When ready then he pounds out two, three, and sometimes four percussive chips, his body jouncing with each syllable, and then vibrating madly with his closing chatter, until it seems his energy is gone for good. He pauses, then, but only to re-brace and pound it out again six seconds later, just as forcefully. And he continues thus for tens of minutes at a time, at all hours of the day and night, all summer long, and sometimes on into September, when the other meadow birds have long since fallen silent, and the trilling crickets are his only company.

That is some stamina, some tried and true machine. The bird can’t get enough of singing, it would seem. You’d think he might wear out some parts, or work some loose with all that vibrating and jolting; or stall, totter, stop altogether and topple, like a battery-powered toy. But he does not.

The late-summer Sedge Wrens of Connecticut remained a mystery (and do still), but the bird was to confound me once again: this time in southern Iowa, high on a grassy hill above the Des Moines River.

Again I’d come in search of something else—a bird of the dry meadows, called the Henslow’s Sparrow—and again I’d found it: at least 10 were out there singing in the dark of a night pasture. But to my astonishment, there singing with them were almost as many Sedge Wrens.

Sedge Wrens: in a dry upland field, with Henslow’s Sparrows? Whatever next, House Wrens in marshes? But then as I continued north that year I began to hear them elsewhere in dry fields: elsewhere in Iowa, and then in North Dakota; and I began to gather that it’s not all that unusual out there in the more western parts of Sedge Wren country. Indeed, a North Dakota biologist would later tell me that he’d counted 27 Sedge Wrens singing in one 80-acre pasture.

It was in North Dakota that I chanced upon my one charmed photo of a Sedge Wren: not in a dry upland, happily, but in a little-known wet meadow Eden tucked among the hills of Benson County. And for that, I can thank Leon Arnold.

Out near the western boundary of Leon’s farmland runs a deep-cut valley and the ghost print of an ancient river, known locally as the Big Coulee; and here at the junction of another, “little coulee” lies a snug sedge-meadow likeness of the marshland to the north at Douglas, Manitoba. This meadow too is fed by springs, and spongy underfoot; and it has the same small boggy pools, skimmed over with the meager greens of algae, bladderworts, and quillworts. So intensely alkaline are these small open areas, I suppose, that little else will grow.

Leon took me out there late one afternoon, and sure enough, the two sedge meadow birds were calling: the rails ticking, and the Sedge Wrens chipping. Would he mind if I went out there with my camera gear? “Oh, no, go ahead,” he said.

“Okay if I’m out there late at night?”

“Sure, that’s fine,” he said with a chuckle. “Any time you like.”

I made several late-night prowls out in his coulee meadow, and stalked after each of the two birds in turn; though I’d already had some good luck with the rail by now, so I was really more intent upon the wren—and the wren singing, above all: could I convey that in a photograph? Time and again I got in fairly close, though not quite close enough before the bird cut short his singing and slipped off. But then I chanced upon that one obliging bird in ten it seems that will allow you just that one step closer, maybe two; and...snap. I caught him with the bill wide open, singing; and my thousandth-of-a-second flash stopped short his every last vibrating molecule, including the bill’s lower mandible—but not the upper. That part of the apparatus had been buzzing at so fast a speed that it alone had blurred; and this small touch of motion was exactly what the photo needed.

My nights out in the sedges would give Leon something to remember, too. One morning he received a phone call from a neighbor who had been out late the night before, and seen these strange lights flashing on the meadow. “Down on the coulee,” the man said; “just after two AM: I think some aliens were landing!”

William Burt is a naturalist, photographer, and writer with a passion for wild places—especially marshes—and the elusive birds few people see. His photographs and stories are seen in Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and other magazines, and he is the author of four books: Shadowbirds (1994); Rare & Elusive Birds of North America (2001); Marshes: The Disappearing Edens (2007); and Water Babies (2015). He lectures often, and his traveling exhibitions have shown at some 35 museums across the US and Canada—including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the New Brunswick Museum, the Calgary Science Center, the Liberty Science Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

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