A loud booming song came rattling up the ravine. It sounded like “tea-kettle-tea-kettle-tea-kettle” then a pause and more “tea-kettle-tea-kettles.” I jumped from foot to foot, trying to stay warm as I scanned the deciduous hardwood forest. The temperature hung around freezing, and I hadn’t brought enough layers to Pennsylvania for doing this Christmas Bird Count.
The melody jumped to the other side of the gully, but nothing seemed to have moved under the massive red oaks and hickories. The bird should be hopping through the leafless bushes, maybe clinging to the bark on one of those trees, or zipping along a branch, all places that it should be easily visible. I shuffled to my left twenty paces, trying to get the blood moving, and started a systematic search. I knew what the bird was, a Carolina Wren, but for some unknown reason, I desperately wanted to see it. They don’t live in Seattle where I do now.
These guys are small and chunky with a reddish-brown back and cap. Their white eyebrow and dark eyeline give them a distinguished look, and that long barred tail radiates energy. They always seem to be at high speeds, tackling life with gusto. Maybe it was envy that made me want to find it.
This was one of the first birds I’d learned as a small child. My sisters still have the farm where I grew up, and our place was just a quarter-mile up the hill from this location. For several years, a pair tried to nest in a little shed. A small cardboard box sat on a high shelf just above the lawnmower. They built their little grass cup in there and laid their creamy-white eggs with rusty brown spots. I’d try to sneak in and pull out the lawnmower without disturbing them. I don’t know if they ever were successful there. Once, late in the summer, I used a step ladder to look into the box and found four cold eggs still nicely clumped in the perfectly woven nest. That shed is gone now.
These little birds remind me of the Bewick’s Wrens that live in my Seattle yard. Bewick’s occasionally visit my suet in winter, and when it is warm, one will sing from the tops of bushes in my front yard. These two species are in separate genera but closely related. When we had heavy snows on the farm, Carolina Wrens occasionally came to our feeders, but their primary food was insects and spiders even in winter.
The general warming of the Eastern United States over the last fifty years has allowed Carolina Wrens to move north and increase in numbers. Severe winters, especially ones with snow that lasts for several weeks, knockback populations substantially. Christmas Bird Count data for Pennsylvania shows a significant crash after a particularly harsh winter in the mid-1990s. This wren has bounced back, though.
Perhaps, it’s that ability to recover after a catastrophe that was making me want to find this bird. A decade ago, I moved to Seattle following my wife’s death and a job loss. It took a while to find the right conditions, to find friends, to …..
“che-wortel, che-wortel, che-wortel” interrupted my thoughts. It came from farther down the valley and closer to the trail. The wren had moved, and I hurried along. There it sat, bouncing up and down on those two thin legs, looking left and right, no indication of being cold.
A pair lived in this ravine throughout those years following the population crash. Another couple lived through those times in the black walnut grove around my boyhood home. They tried to nest a few times on the back porch of that house where my sisters still live. These birds persevered through those hard times.
The wren flitted up through a bush and looked right at me. It seemed to say, “What are you thinking about? Get on with it!” It then darted left and dashed down over the hill. I stared for a while and then turned to continue my count. That ball of energy had somehow warmed me up.