One Wren, New Under the Sun

The wrens are singing! This unusually bold fellow, a male Pacific Wren, perched by my regular trail yesterday and sang up a storm, not flitting into hiding even when I stopped and swung my camera into position.

Pacific Wren singing

Pacific Wren singing

When I first encountered the delicious extended burble that’s the Pacific Wren’s song, I marveled about it to a superb naturalist friend who used to teach in North Carolina. She told me of taking a group of students on a spring field trip, a hike up into the mountains to reach the spring range of the Winter Wren (formerly viewed as the same species), promising them the reward of a truly magnificent song in return for making their way up the warm, humid trail.When the group finally reached the wren’s elevation, they waited – and lo, there it was, somewhere deep in the forest, singing its little heart out! Many of the students oohed and aahed appropriately. (The other group’s response was “We climbed all the way up here for that?” But they were young; there’s still time.)

Now it’s our local forest’s turn. Pacific Wrens may be tiny and secretive, but they light up the woods with their complex melodies. We’re lucky enough to have them around all year long, and spring’s when they sing. (Lucky also that we can hear them with an easy walk along a bluff trail in fine breezy 60° weather; have you ever hiked uphill for hours in the North Carolina heat?) As described in this brief BirdNote from “Living on Earth,” it takes slowing down the Pacific Wren’s song to grasp that it may be telling stories we can’t understand with our ears.

Of course, it’s not just the wrens who are celebrating spring’s arrival. The budding Bigleaf Maples are attracting Black-capped Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds.

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Black-capped Chickadee eyes Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna's Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Anna’s Hummingbird approaches Bigleaf Maple bud

Everyday little birds, all of them. They’re regular neighbors who live here all year and do pretty much these same things each time spring rolls around. We humans, especially we scientists, love these regularities. Cycles and rhythms soothe us, reassure us that yes, even after the past year’s, any year’s, winter of wars and wrenching tragedies, the maple leaves will open, warblers will return to the flowering hawthornes, wrens will sing.

I’ve been trained for decades to look for these generalizations, to utilize the singular only as a clue to a new and more powerful pattern. Inexplicable uniqueness? No thanks, says my scientist-self; if it’s unusual, I want to explain it, figure out its bigger context.

It’s the artist in me, not the scientist, who wants to find what’s unique about this season—already so thoroughly explored by countless writers and poets for millenia—and this very wren, and treasure it for its own sake. Not only for what it might teach us about wren phenology or phonology or physiology—which knowledge I love not one whit less—but simply because that is a really cool song that the forest just sang. Right here. Just then.

Artist-self insists: This is not the same spring as before. This chickadee, who’s had a nest with her mate in this same Pacific Madrone for the past three years: rotting has opened her nest hole up so you can see right through it; what’s she going to do about that?

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

Black-capped Chickadee exiting nest, carrying out the garbage

That particular Anna’s Hummingbird, who each spring has taken up his place at the top of the dead Bigleaf Maple that overlooks the salmonberry patch by the stream, defending his turf from that Rufous Hummingbird who regularly arrives once the blossoms begin to open: the maple finally blew down this past winter, and how’s he going to choose a backup throne?

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled

Rufous Hummingbird on Bigleaf Maple snag, now toppled, keeping a lookout for the Anna’s Hummingbird

What about this artist, this writer? This spring’s also different because I am: I now love penguins, when I only liked them before.

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Little Blue Penguin, Stewart Island, New Zealand

It’s different because I now have more memories of disparate natural beauties than I ever imagined a person could have; because Antarctica’s ecology-on-the-edge helped me to understand that ohmyGod what an astounding creature any tree is; because my soul has been fed with utter wildnesses that have taught me better how to pray attention. It’s an entirely singular spring because I’ve gotten to live a whole additional year with my beloved partner, and we’re both getting older, and other people I love are getting older, and one day it’ll suddenly be someone’s last spring.

And because a lone small red tulip has mysteriously sprouted in our side yard amidst a thick cluster of irises, while a distant wren was singing through the wind.

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pacific Wren, Lincoln Park, West Seattle


18 responses to “One Wren, New Under the Sun

  1. Trileigh! Beautiful post, as usual 🙂 I love your photography. I can’t believe that you are able to capture these birds in in their everyday being with such clarity. Plus, I love what you say about cycles of the seasons being reassuring. So true.

  2. Absolutely lovely post…and good photos too!

  3. So beautiful. Thank you.

  4. Hi Trileigh,
    I find your writing very beautiful. It reminds me of my childhood growing up near my grandparents woods where what is now Spy Hill subdivision. I would spend time walking there listening to and learning about animals and birds in that woods. I seem to have gone full circle for the last two year I have taken our dog for a morning walk in our Rural neighborhood in James City County, Virginia. In the past two years we have come across a mother fox and her two pups playing, pack of coyotes stalking a small group of white tailed deer, an albino white tailed deer with a coat that mimics an Appaloosa horse, migrating turtles returning to lay eggs and many beautiful and stoic birds. to name a few. Unfortunately, in the last two years a few subdivisions have claimed a majority of the acreage that was open near us so the habitats are moving farther away.

    Your writing is priceless. Bob Lane. W&L1973,

    • Bob, this is such a lovely comment. You may remember that I went to William and Mary, and while I was there I spent a lot of time bike riding in rural James City County. I remember the magnificent ancient oaks and the sounds of crickets and frogs everywhere. I’d love to know more about where you live – it sounds so rich in wildlife.

      And your comment about the new subdivisions…so sadly like too many other places. I’m so glad to know that you’re truly appreciating the nature that remains.

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  6. Hi Trileigh,
    I live off of Croaker Road. You may remember the intersection of Croaker and rt 60 was a place called the candle factory. To find it on a map Interstate 64 East from Richmond Va to Norfolk Va and look for exit 231 A As you travel onto Croaker rd and towards rt 60 we live in the Subdivision to your right just before you cross the railroad track. The subdivision is known as Mirror Lakes.
    I know a professor of yours who remembers you. His name is Dr. Jerry Johnson(sp?) He is retired but still never goes anywhere without taking his shells.

    • Looks like you’re just a few miles from the river – I bet it’s lovely where you are.

      I owe Jerre a great debt; he got me into my career, geology. (I thanked him for that in front of a national audience one year.) I’m thrilled that he remembers me. Please give him my warmest regards!

  7. I just found a link to your blog on WSB under the soaring eagle photo-which is very cool- and was wondering when the winter wren was re-classed/named Pacific Wren? I too see them fairly often along the beach path, north of the pool. Nice blog!

  8. Thank you, Trileigh! I’ll look up those links. There are several busy, resident Bewick’s wrens around my yard, but not those tiniest ones, darn!

  9. Trileigh,
    This is a particularly wonderful piece of writing, filled with wonderful photos. Takes me back to our early morning birding walks in upstate Vermont.

    I don’t think I could live where there weren’t seasonal “cycles and rhythms.” Like you, I am a scientist who can’t be in nature without observing and asking questions, so of course I love the “phenology or phonology or physiology” phrase. (How about that for some alliteration?!) But I have become convinced that it is the artistic renderings – through prose or photos or paintings – that best connects people to the environment and its changes. It is through art that us science types need to tell the story that the data is telling us.

    Thanks for this beautiful diversion from my grading!

    • That’s so interesting, Diane, about the other three “P’s” (prose, photos, paintings) through which art connects people so deeply to nature. Spring leaves me almost dizzy with ecstasy when all 6 P’s come together in one glorious season! Thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment.

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