Chocolate brown in deep shadow. Hop; poke; twist; whirr of wings; peck; jump-up; bob; peck; twist. Detail is hard to come by in these brief meetings. I need to go back to the books.
Wren, has been an image built up of layers of Wren each adding more detail to the last until we are satiated. Digging down in this avian archaeology the first layer is The Observers Book of Birds. A black and white image on page 152 is Wren shaped. The first sentence reads, ‘The Wren is one of our smallest birds, and is quite unmistakable with its brown plumage, round-about appearance and tilted up tail’. This combined with that work of fiction, known as The Eye Spy Book of Birds; what I didn’t see in my village at the end of the 70s, would have been my first Wren words. Then there was the eight lines in the Observers Book of Bird eggs, which described the nest as being built out of ‘any handy material’.
By the time I saw Richard Richardson’s image of Wren, among the plate of brown warblers and a very small Nightingale, I must have already seen Wren. Words from the Collins Pocket Guide to British Birds were closer to Wren. ‘The smallest warm-brown bird, its barred plumage and cocked-up tail make it almost unmistakable’. Almost seems a bit cautious in this case as it is preceded by ‘Flight Whirring; hops; almost creeps among undergrowth like mouse’. There was no reference at all to the undertail-coverts as shown here by Mark Dobinson’s picture.
By the time the Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland arrived I probably did not notice Wren, sandwich as it was by the exotics of Waxwing and Dipper in 1983. Largely, that’s how it remained its tic-tic-tic, scolding trill or burst of loud warbling song breaking the consciousness neither Collins or Jonsson added anything new. When in 2004 when Birding World highlighted the races living on offshore Scottish Islands I was not really that bothered.
The only new information came in 2010 from Van Duivendijk’s Advanced Bird ID Guide in describing 1w-1s ‘Sometimes moult-limit in greater coverts, juv-type warm-brown without pale tips ad-type slightly greyer and often with pale or white tips’. He alluded to the island forms which Hume et al. illustrated in 2016 and only then did things start to take shape.
There they sat until I added other species of wren in the States -Carolina and Eastern Marsh. At this point I started to take Wren more seriously as two rather than the usual one took our garden as their winter territory. Silently arriving together they demanded attention.
Fox was not on my mind when I settled down to explore Wren. She pulled herself out of Braken hidden from the biting north wind. She may have stayed all day had I not chosen this spot to improve on last week’s ability to see Wren. Disdainful look over her shoulder, I knew my place. Wren moved, well Braken moved like Michael Benteen’s Potty Time, but Wren did not show. Then a whirr of wings. A cocked brown tail; pale supercilium; pointy beak; bright beady eye; then nothing. Deep undercover it called leading to a burst of song from behind me. Then it was just Braken again. Knowing Wren is going to be more time consuming than I originally thought.
I was in town later and on a whim I went to see what modern nature writers were saying about Wren. The Complete Book of Garden birds, with David Daley’s lovely water colours, devotes as much space to Wren as it does to Hawfinch. This parity is not mirrored I suspect by most birders with the current influx of hundreds of Hawfinches to the country.
Wren by David Daley
After that other writers expressed Wren as a tut-tutter, unmistakeable and a list padder. Repetition of the volume of song from such a small bird began to bore me. Why has all the observant creative writing been lost to repeating things others have already said. No wonder children are not engaged.
I turned to go and at the top of the stairs was a copy of Macfarlane and Morris’s Lost Words. Having seen Wren being painted and spoken, would the book live up to expectations. These are spells to engage children with things we are losing. Important things and Wren is there as its own page and hidden amongst the other leaves too.
This is what I am searching for. Wren, an active verb as well as a hidden noun. Here was the project. Why? may be a different question.
The facts may already be known, but not to me. At 9 grams it is the weight of a £1 coin. How has it successfully covered the Northern Hemisphere?
There are few birds that span the Northern Hemisphere that have not been aided to do so by man. One of these exceptions is the Wren. Until recently (2010) regarded as one species, on any given Spring day as the sun rises it would be shining on a Wren setting forth its territorial claim to its slice of the planet. There is no more exciting a claim than such a small bird with such a loud voice. Donald Kroodsma envisaged this as, ‘a wave of Wren song following the sun’. Across the globe, because of this, many cultures encounter Wrens. Each in turn labels it, some for its small size or like the Ojibway who name it in honour of its song- Ka-wa-miti-go-shi-que-na-go-mooch.
Seeing a new species of bird for the first time makes a huge impression when they are rare and sought after. Gyr Falcon, Pacific Swift, Lark Sparrow and Oriental Praticole are words that conjure up a moment in time on a specific day that I first saw them. Common birds just drift into your consciousness after forty years of birding. Blue Tits, Robins, Greenfinch and Linnets are just as much a part of my childhood as my family. I don’t remember when I first met them either. I do however have a memory of Wren singing from a Hogweed in bright May sunshine.
Looking for a close to home bird project for 2018 I realised I don’t know much about Wrens, even though it features in most of my birding notes. From winters on upland moors down to the beach Wren is always there. In City centres it is there, I have heard it singing among the noise of Liverpool’s shoppers. But I don’t know Wren and while out of work it leached into my being and I need to know more.
This may be the start of something or nothing, but I have the chance to see two more taxa of Wren-ness. Before I do I need to know more about ours.
This photo gives you some idea of what I have let myself in for. Its a bird form the far east and I will credit the photographer once he tells me which country it was taken in. It shows Wren-ness, but not of the kind I see in my garden. Let the adventures begin.