The Marsh Wren -- a 'stealth' bird

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Imagine the frustration of being right next to a bird and not being able to see it. This is often the case when trying to view a Marsh Wren. I am out on the edge of Miacomet Pond, staring down at last summer's brown and broken rushes and cattails, watching for anything to move. The bird is not more than five feet from me. I hear little rustling noises, an occasional ‘chuck’ note from the bird, and then a hint of color, a rich brown from the back, then a quick glimpse of a white stripe above the eye, a few more chucks, and then more rustling. One can barely see the vegetation twitch here and there, then nothing. From behind me there is a dry rattling sound. There are actually two invisible wrens!

It reminds me of my experiences birding in Taiwan. A forest reverberating in song, all from invisible birds which may surround you. You approach a thicket, which is bursting with song, and stare at it forever without success. Disturb the tangle and silence reigns. Walk away and the thicket bursts into song again! This is the way it is with Marsh Wrens -- Latin named -- Cistothorus palustris -- which translates to -- one who runs into marshy shrubs!

Edith Folger Andrews' book in 1948 calls this wren an "Extremely rare vagrant … two spring records". Our book now shows the bird as uncommon November through Jan. then a break -- before picking up in April and May. So far, Marsh Wrens are not known to breed on our island. Where they do breed, it is in fresh water marshes, very near the ground or water level. They are one of the species known to use a snakeskin as part of their nest, perhaps to discourage slithery predators. They become quite boisterous with their songs as they go through their courting procedures. That is the best time to actually get to see one.

To arrive on Nantucket, they obviously have to migrate. Their migration habits are an antithesis of their normal behavior. A scientist in upstate New York describes the departure south of the last wren in his marsh. "The little fellow uttered a feeble warble which attracted my attention and then rose from near my station, fluttering higher and higher into the air until lost at an elevation of about 300 feet, where I caught my last glimpse of him against the full moon. The following morning when I visited the marsh no more wrens were left." It's a wonder the little wren didn't get a nosebleed, suddenly pitching itself to such an altitude.

Marsh Wrens are small, and I'm sorry, wren-like. A signature wren characteristic is a stubby tail, askew, often at right angle to the rest of the bird. They are rich brown to rust color on the upper parts, streaked with white on the back. An exclamatory white eye-stripe rides just above the eye. Wrens are mainly insectivores, and for this reason were considered to be quite beneficial to mankind, back when each species was required to justify itself in some way.

These birds used to be known as Long-billed Marsh Wrens. The wren now called the Sedge Wren, was the Short-billed Marsh Wren. This is just another thing the ornithologists in the sky do to keep us on our toes.

When I was growing up here in the 40’s and 50’s, wrens of any type were scarce. On the mainland, the House Wren is a common and ubiquitous summer resident and much is written about their joyous song and engaging habits. I felt a bit desolate that they didn’t come here. The most common wren on Nantucket now is the Carolina Wren, a species that trickled into the island in the late ‘80s and didn’t really become common until the early ‘90s, perhaps another symptom of global warming. The Carolina Wren was the first wren of any type I remember and I had to go to the Vineyard to hear its trumpeting call in the late ‘50s.

As mentioned above, Marsh Wrens are regular winter visitors but secretive in their habits. At this time of year, you must listen for their little chucking notes in the reeds and then entice them out by calling. A good place to see them is from the trail along the west side of Miacomet Pond that you can reach from the Land Bank parking lot at the end of Mizzenmast. Prepare to be charmed by the rich brown color with sharp streaking on the back, the exclamatory white eyebrow, and the jaunty tail, which is generally held askew, wren style.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.