Sedge Wrens and Catbirds

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

The marsh that runs west from Moodie Drive to the area behind the Nortel campus is usually productive for a variety of breeding birds in the warmer months of the year. I visited the area again on the morning of June 22nd, still hoping to see or hear the Sedge Wrens that had taken up residence there. Two Savannah Sparrows were singing in the field south of the parking area, and a number of Tree and Barn Swallows were flying overhead as I made my way down the path that skirts the edge of the marsh. I saw a Northern Flicker, two Purple Finches, an American Redstart, and heard several Warbling Vireos, Song Sparrows, and a single Willow Flycatcher.

I stopped several times, listening for the song of the Sedge Wrens. Eventually I heard one singing way in the back of the sedge meadow: a couple of short, dry chips followed by an dry, rapid trill on a slightly lower pitch. The song lacked the hollow, gurgling tone of the Marsh Wren; after listening to it for a minute I played the song on my iPhone (quietly) in order to confirmed the identity of the songster. It was a Sedge Wren, my second lifer in two days! Unfortunately it didn’t show itself, but I was more than happy to hear it.

Sedge Wren Habitat

Sedge Wren Habitat

The Sedge Wren breeds in short grass and sedge marshes and is perhaps the most difficult wren to observe in eastern North America. Not only is it secretive in nature, rarely perching out in the open, it is also one of the most nomadic territorial birds in North America. Sedge Wrens move around from year to year; while this species may be present in good numbers in suitable habitat one year, it may be completely absent the next. There used to be only two reliable locations for these birds in Ottawa. One was along Torbolton Ridge Road out near Dunrobin, though these birds were last reported to eBird in 2012; and the other is the Richmond Fen, a difficult place to bird as it is accessible only via canoe or along active railroad tracks. Birds have been reported from here from the 1970s until 2014.

I listened to the Sedge Wren call a few times before continuing on to see what other birds were around at the back of the marsh. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole and an Eastern Kingbird, and heard two different Eastern Wood-pewees calling. I also spotted a pair of juvenile Tree Swallows sitting in a tree above the path, waiting for their parents to feed them.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Gray Catbirds are common along the shrubs between the marsh path and the paved bike path, so I didn’t think anything of it when I spotted this adult emerge from a thicket and sit out in the open briefly. Then I saw it dart into the shrubs, emerge with an insect in its mouth, and zoom off into a different shrub. To my surprise a newly-fledged catbird was sitting quietly on a branch!

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The adult Gray Catbird stuffed the food into the baby’s mouth then flew off to find more. The fledgling has not yet developed the long tail feathers of an adult, and still shows a prominent gape – the flesh-coloured junction where the upper and lower mandibles meet. While the gape is very soft and noticeable in nestlings, it begins to harden, become less prominent, and (like the bill itself) darken as the bird ages.

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

When the adult catbird left, the fledgling noticed me standing on the trail and slipped into the shadowy interior of the shrub. There it sat stock-still, pointing its bill up at the sky as if this rendered it invisible. I grabbed a few photos and then left, keeping my distance as best I could on the narrow trail.

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

Gray Catbird (fledgling)

At the very back of the trail I heard two House Wrens singing in the dry area beyond the marsh. There weren’t any insects around worth photographing, so I turned around and headed back. A lone Virginia Rail called from the cattail marsh; I didn’t hear any Marsh Wrens on this visit, which would have made it a three-wren day! I also didn’t see any herons, which seemed a bit strange as I usually see at least one of the three of the common species flying over. Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows were around in good numbers, as were Cedar Waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

As I returned to the parking area I stopped to listen again for the Sedge Wren and heard it, still singing deep within the sedge meadow. I didn’t spend much time looking up into the blue sky, so it was a bit of a surprise when I spotted two large raptors gliding above the area out of the corner of my eye. One was recognizable as a Red-tailed Hawk; it circled around for a while before drifting southward. The other disappeared to the south much quicker, though it may have been a juvenile Bald Eagle. Altogether it was a good day at the marsh!

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