Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Return of the Wren, Again

I have written over the years about house wrens, and this year will be no exception.

Usually, the nest box goes out in late April and it doesn't take long before one of the little, brown wrens comes to investigate.

This year has been different. We had a warm spell in early April and I put the box out early, after reading reports of house wrens arriving in areas of the state south of my town. But it seemed a day or so later the winds turned and started blowing from the northeast, blocking the northbound migrants (and making the area colder than normal).

House wren
A few weeks ago I took my usual morning walk for the newspaper and heard a house wren in a yard across and down the street. House wrens have a small territory of which they are fiercely possessive, so I knew this one wasn't going to be coming to my backyard. As the weeks went on, I would hear a house wren here and there but not in the backyard.

That changed on Friday, May 10, when the winds finally turned again and brought warm weather out of the south. That morning, I awoke to the bubbly call of a house wren in the backyard. I came downstairs and found it investigating the box. When I went on my walk, I took the long way home and managed to find - no lie - seven different types of warblers: myrtle, several parulas, a couple of black and whites, a couple of American redstarts, a yellow, a common yellow-throat and my first-of-season black-throated blue.

If you swap the blue for a palm warbler, these are the same birds I managed to find over many hours and much traveling over parts of Great Swamp a couple of weeks ago, when migrants were few and far between. This day, they were all within a half-mile of each other.

With a good tailwind, the birds came and the birders of New Jersey rejoiced.

Wren nestbox
But the house wren's arrival was weeks late, part of the wacky weather we've been having this spring. Winters that are snowier or colder than usual. Rainy Marchs. Cold Aprils. May winds out of the northeast. And then a sudden spurt of south winds and hot temperatures.

Today, the house wren was bringing sticks to the box, getting on a branch every so often to sing his heart out. Males put a few twigs into the box and then brings the female around. If she likes it, she brings more twigs to build a full nest and then the laying and brooding begin.

The house wren sings one song and it sings it all day to claim his territory.

Meanwhile, I was looking out the kitchen window and saw what I first thought were three dingy goldfinches. No, I thought, that isn't right. At this time of year, the males are bright yellow with a black cap and the females are green-yellow. I looked closer and realized I was looking at three pine siskins, the first I've ever seen during spring migration rather than in winter.

They were quickly chased off by a sparrow. In turn, this bird was chased off by a more welcome visitor - a rosebreasted grosbeak.

Male rosebreasted grosbeak
Specifically, 2 male and 1 female grosbeak.

This is a well-named bird, as you can see in my picture. The male's bill is prominent, made more so by the contrast with the black head. And there is that rosy triangle on the breast, contrasted with the white.

The female, tho' brown rather than colorful (to better blend into the woods when breeding) is also striking, with her large, light bill and a distinctive white "eyebrow," which is how I can easily identify her.

Usually, these large birds show up in early May - when they show up. It is not a given. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes we have been traveling when they do. This is the first time in several years that we have been at home and they have been at the feeder at the same time.

As I said, I saw 3 of these. I had to take care of something and MH told me that we ultimately had 5 grosbeaks - 3 males and 2 females, an impressive total.

I don't know how long these grosbeaks will hang around. At some point I want to bring in the feeders, put out a hanging basket of flowers and put my houseplants on my screened-in porch. (Every time I plan on doing this it suddenly gets cold and I leave things where they are.) That is my summer ritual.

I don't have such doubts about the house wren. If he finds a mate and if she accepts the box, they will have a brood and in a few weeks I'll hear almost continual singing and see almost continual movement as the parents hunt for food for their young. Then, one day, they'll fledge and disappear from the box. Summer will be over. 

Life will go on.