By: Jim Spencer
Wrens are in the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
Just like the human snowbirds who are packing up their RVs to head south to Texas, short and medium-distance migratory birds are making similar, albeit simpler plans, anthropomorphically speaking. Using their internal GPS systems, birds will be searching for wintering habitats in Texas that provide food, water, and shelter.
Among the many species that winter here, like ducks, small falcons and native sparrows, are four species of wrens. They will start returning to Texas in October from northern states and Canadian provinces, especially as the month progresses. Three live in fairly specialized habitats, while one is a little more adaptable. All are well-camouflaged.
Sedge Wrens are small birds, about 4.5 inches long, that like to winter in grassy marshes and dry grassy fields. Although they rarely occur in Travis County, they have been attracted to the restored prairie at Commons Ford Ranch Metropolitan Park the last couple of winters. The Sedge Wren’s call and song are reminiscent of an old manual typewriter, with very dry chip notes, and rhythmic staccato chattering. They are more easily heard than seen, running on the ground to avoid predators, or flying a very short distance before diving back into cover.
The Marsh Wren favors wetlands that have cattails or other vegetation like sedges and bulrushes. In the winter they also use tidal saltmarshes along the coast, where the migrants join the population of resident Marsh Wrens. In Austin Marsh Wrens can be found in large ponds that have cattails, as well as along lakes with tall, emergent vegetation. The classic pose for Marsh Wrens is straddling two different plant stalks as the birds look around alertly, with tails cocked up. They are somewhat similar in appearance to Sedge Wrens, but are slightly larger with longer bills. Marsh Wrens sing a different tune too. Both Sedge and Marsh Wrens are secretive and require some effort to see.
At only 4 inches, and favoring dark, wet woods especially along streams where it investigates nooks and crannies for insects and spiders, the Winter Wren is also hard to spot. Its chocolate-brown color and ridiculously short tail are helpful identification pointers. It doesn’t sing much, if at all, in winter, which is a shame since its songs are long, complex and memorable for such a small bird.
The wintering wren that you are most likely to encounter is the House Wren. While still somewhat secretive, it favors areas with trees, shrubs and brushy tangles around more open areas. Less groomed park edges are a good place to look. House Wrens call attention to themselves with sounds like churrs, rattles, and chatter in winter, and will occasionally pop out to look for predators. They are drab, small, slender birds. Unlike our resident Bewick’s and Carolina Wrens, they don’t have white eyebrows. At least in their summer habitats, House Wrens are aptly named, as they are often found foraging and nesting close to houses. A fun fact about House Wrens is that they can live in a wide variety of habitats, from deciduous to coniferous forests and from swamps to mountainside elevations of 10,000 feet. When it comes time for House Wrens to migrate north for the summer, be sure to listen for their beautiful gurgling songs that run up and down the scale.
For many birds the securing of safe wintering habitat is more challenging every year as Texas becomes more and more developed. You can help them by planting native trees, shrubs and perennials that provide food and shelter. Visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s semi-annual plant sale on October 18 (members only) and October 19 when open to the public. Learn more about native plants for birds and other wildlife by taking a Native Landscapes for Birds class from the Native Plant Society of Texas.