How Do Wrens Measure Up?

Silently arriving together they demanded attention. Each bird took a different route; one picking under the leaves of the geraniums before the first frost flattens them; the second closer and easier to see, until it disappeared under a flower pot and out into the Hazel bush. At this point I claim them as ‘my’ Wrens. Knowing that one garden is not enough for their needs, does not defeat my possesiveness.


Picture by Christopher Mercier

This is a common scene acted out in front of many household windows as Wrens are one of the top 20 most common garden birds. They are found in all other habitats too, with 7.7m territories across Britain the tic-tic of a Wren is never far away. Weighing about the same as a £1 coin (9g), the distribution map could be seen as a thin scattering of £14.4m.

wren distribution
Wren distribution from BTO BBS.

atlas wren distribution

If people know little about birds, they will still know that Wrens are small. The wing length is about that of the long edge of a custard cream with little difference between that of a male and female. The biscuit, for information, is heavier and tends not to move as fast around my garden. The biscuit is also paler in colour; the Hobnob being a better colour match did not have a suitable Wren metric.

wren trends

Population Trends

Wrens numbers drop after hard winters in Britain and so currently are doing well. This shift in climate is also being seen in its earlier nesting dates each year. The female lays 5-6 eggs which weigh 1.3g. Each egg represents about 14% of her body weight; you may wish to remember that next time you are in the bathroom.

laying date

Average laying date

Incubation last 2.5 weeks and there is another 2.5 weeks before the young Wrens fledge. About 26% of fledglings survive into the following year at which point they are able to breed. Many survive into a second breeding year, but these are short lives full of hustle and bustle. The longest lived birds hardly move far from where they were born, the greatest survivor being a 7 years old bird that lived its days on Bardsey Island.

fledgling per breeding attempt

Fledglings per breeding attempt

Some do have wanderlust and a small number of records of birds travelling within Britain up to 490km. Others have crossed the North Sea with a remarkable record of a bird travelling 909km from Falsterbo, Sweden to Northumberland in 13 days. However, the evidence does suggest that this species does have a tendency to stay local. This then, is part of their magic, here in your local birds is a genealogy traceable if one could only read the signs. Or more likely hear, as the song past from father to son that retains the essence of Wrenness through generations. It is this which isolates populations on islands and aids speciation.

Information taken from BTO Bird Facts



Wren, by the book.

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.

Wren MArk Davison undertail

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.

Humes island wrens

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.

Wren.  What am I looking for?

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?

What is it about ‘Wren-ness’?

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.

'far eastern' Wren


Discovered Owls

In the glow of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples a Tawny Owl called; only once. On returning home it was not clear if they have been recorded on the dry south east coast of Sicily. This reminded me of ‘Undiscovered Owls’ by Magnus Robb and The Sound Approach and I had to get a copy. This is the latest in the series introducing birders to bird sound. Their punch-line in this case was the discovery of Omani Owl, as well as shining light on poorly understood Western Palearctic taxa.
Until now I have never made a big thing about owls and it’s only in the last few years that I have made an effort to get five species a year. All five can be seen within the 10km square that covers Newcastle/Gateshead which I covered in 2015. Barn Owl is the one for me that goes under the radar. Sometimes they feel like ghosts, just because I don’t see them it does not mean they are not there.
In Robb’s introduction he talks of the calls of owls drifting into and out of our consciousness. Their calls reflect the shape of the trees and cliffs that surround; different to bird song. It was good to read that the team also had to learn what meanings are hidden in the calls of Tawny Owls. Without this, I would not have known it was a male calling as I ploughed back through a muddy track in the dark from a distant Little Owl. So I am on a bit of a mission and more than just year ticking I want to see what these birds do. Another Little Owl roosting in the same Hawthorn since last October and others displaying from a deformed Ash have really opened my eyes. Why have I not done this before?
Driving back through County Durham towards dusk I recalled seeing a rough grazing meadow behind a wood a few years back. Does that have Barn Owls? A Buzzard circled, calling when out of sight. I flushed a Woodcock and waited for ‘ghosts’. I could hear people and dogs nearby and slipped away unseen. I was nearly back to the car when the gaze of two Roe Deer drew my eyes towards them. Stock still, they did not notice the Short-eared Owl above their heads.
The owl rowed quickly across the darkening sky in pursuit of a second. They chased and spiraled high into the sky occasionally one –the pursuer would yap. This reminded me of Robb’s words, ‘SEOs are bastards to record’. Then a third bird was in the sky seeing off a Buzzard. In a year when the birds close to home at Burdon Moor are absent, finding three in a random spot was as exciting as finding a lifer.
I returned three days later. The cold thick grey cloud remained, but added to it was occasional hail brought by a penetrating east wind. The first bird hunted at 3pm and quickly made a kill. It ate just in time to avoid the Buzzard power gliding low out of the wood. The Owl chased it into a tree where it was mobbed by a Kestrel. Through the scope I could see a loose primary on the owl’s right wing. It preened and watched the Buzzard flew back to the wood. On flat wings it glided away and with fast wing beats the owl shot after it. The Buzzard circle high effortlessly, but the Owl went higher and dived. It flew back to the field yapping before landing in a dead Hawthorne where it spent the next hour just watching.
I could no longer feel my fingers and toes when the second bird arrived. The first chased the second until the settled to hunt opposite ends of the field. Two hares chased but I could not stay until dark, I had sat still too long and cold was deep in my bones.


Reseting the clock

Even though it was misty and this delayed the darkness leaving, Shakespeare’s owl was away to its bed.  Even though I had high hopes of visiting the patch regularly, things this year conspired against it.  There were three things I wanted to get out of what might be the last visit of 2016.

The first as always was to see whats there.  Unseen a Waxwing added itself to the patch list as it flew over calling, seeking more of its kind.  Fieldfares kicked up from windfall apples and Redwings beat their way into the sky; one slightly smaller bird with a different wing action may have been a Song Thrush, but was lost in the mist too soon.  Redpoll -all dark picked through Birch trees above the land ruined by MotoX.  The male Buzzard saw me long before I saw him and flew to the female in the wood where they nest.  They both brought in the sound of the Fells as they left.

The track through the wood has been ruined by the bikes so I detoured through acres of Pheasants which will be gone on Boxing Day.  Returning to the path I found a footpath sign buried in the mud.  Beyond that a permanent sign on the bridle path saying shooting in progress keep out.  Two indications that others want the countryside closed.

A Roe Deer, a Jay and a Dipper singing low down in the valley as I passed Causey Arch were on my side.  Hi-vis jackets fixing a fence and two dog walkers were not.  I left my patch and through and past Beech trees with their feet in their copper-coloured leaves; another Buzzard sat high above me near a Yew that had already stood longer than I ever would.  Middle-aged women with trusty steads between their thighs and more dog walkers, before plunging down to the river.

Another Dipper sang above the water over rocks percussion.  I had not realised how lovely the song actually is.  Then another let me stand and watch it sing and feed.  Further upstream I watch the river pass, swirling leaves in a eddy.  I could still hear the Dipper.  The second point of the winter walk was reached -a oneness.  I can hear birds and wind in the trees and the stream.  In a man-made environment I hear no sound of man. I sit until the moment passes, my clock reset.

I head back to the patch.  Four male Goosander watch over a female as she fishes.  She looks up and two display.  They are magical in the dull light.  Another Buzzard again allows a close approach but is scared off by the bells on dogs collars.  Avoiding the paths I push past Hazel whose catkins are there already.

On the patch I am greeted by 4 MotoX bikes racing along a bridle path.  Illegal.  And then two old men walking dogs calling the police.  Who ruins the patch more? I do not share their concerns and reach the car after nearly five hours.  Part three, the joy of walking. Grey slips into darkness.

Ash 2



Double Glazed Over.

I might get to an end of year review, though there is a general consensus that whatever hope rung in the New Year, 2016 is now drunk and should go home. Three weeks feels like a long time and nothing is going to change just because you wake up with a hangover as 2017 starts.  So in at the end of the first week in December when mostly temperatures have stayed in double figures what troubles me the most?

I think mainly it is the disregard for nature -biodiversity, ecology, sustainability, which ever word you want to use.  Recently, I have been around RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trust estates and two thinks have struck me.  Firstly, we are turning nature, even here, into commodities -tame and constrained; and secondly, people often see it as a lump of nature.  Somewhere to take the kids or in the latter two walk the dogs.  They are not seeing the diversity and they are not seeing how much less of it there is that 10 years ago.  and this is less than it was 10 years before that.

So I began to think what is the worst invention that is going to accelerate the distance we have from wildlife.  Its not TV as everyone is watching David Attenborough’s swan song -Planet Earth II.  Its not pollution and urban sprawl.  True enough this is killing wildlife, ask the 10,000+ dead snow gees in Montana.

No the thing that I kept returning to is double glazing.  It deadens the sound of the Robin that sings outside my window at 5 am under the street light.  It stops me feeling the change in the weather.  It keeps me distant from everything that is important.  Not just me, all of us.  It allows us to be emotionally attached to nature as much as we need to be.  The less attached we are the more of it can slip through our fingers.

It starts at home.  I can see 16 back gardens from my house.  Only three have a tree, only two of them have more than one.  There are no ponds apart from ours. And in the summer if they do anything apart from cut the grass -outdoor vacuuming they put out ‘pay-and-display’ bedding plants maintained by their array of noxious chemicals.  Suddenly 2017 is not looking much brighter than just being 32 days away rather than the start of a new era.Image-1