Monday, February 4, 2013

Up Close with a Pacific Wren...

On Saturday, February 2nd, I received a phone call from my buddy Justin Jones.  Justin was birding at the Rio Salado Restoration Area in the heart of central Phoenix with his son Payson.  Payson has been learning how to be a birder like his father.  Justin heard a very interesting bird that gave him quite a confusing time at first.  Now Justin is a very good birder, and the good birders usually have the right first impressions.  Justin followed what caught his eye as a possible Ovenbird into the dense riparian habitat of the Salt River at Rio Salado.  Shortly after, he heard the interesting bird.  It struck him as a Winter/Pacific Wren species when he heard it, but he saw some sort of warbler species wherever the sound was coming from.  Justin thought the warbler was giving this call.  It would take an interesting warbler to sound like this, so we were thinking it was some sort of eastern warbler that was very agitated.  He followed the warbler further without getting the look he wanted.  It confused Justin because it sounded too much like a small Troglodytes to be a warbler.  When he called me, we tried to think of possible solutions and identifications to what he observed.  It was a mystery but Justin was determined to find out what he was hearing and seeing in the field.  Justin went back on Sunday to try and relocate the bird.  Due to crowded weekend conditions on Sunday, Justin decided to hold a better search for Monday, when I had time to join him.

On Monday, February 4th, Justin and I started birding at sunrise at Rio Salado.  We quickly headed over to the spot where Justin had his mystery bird.  Rio Salado and it's adjacent Salt River was in rare form, as there wasn't much in the way of water in the riverbed.  It gave us the opportunity to explore the habitat easily along the river, which was really cool.  We searched for over an hour without hearing the question mark, but we did have some interesting sightings in the early going.  One was a rarity in an EASTERN PHOEBE, which Justin had been observing since November.  Eastern Phoebe is annual throughout the state of Arizona in winter in small numbers.  We also had a few uncommon BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLERS.  After covering more of Rio Salado during the first hour, we decided to spend the rest of our time hoping to turn up our target.

We returned to the immediate area of Justin's haunting bird.  I was listening to something on my iPod when Justin screamed, "I hear it!  That's the bird!".  As I listened, it sounded like a Pacific Wren to me.  I ran over to where the sound was coming from, and I was convinced I was hearing a Pacific Wren.  After a few minutes, a PACIFIC WREN popped out from the dense understory of the tall willows it was in midst of.  Just like that, the mystery was solved.  Justin's initial impression was right, and the warbler he saw must have been right above the calling wren.  Justin and I observed the wren for a good amount of time, getting the documentation photos and sound recordings needed for Pacific Wren.  The bird turned out to be very cooperative.  It was only the second Pacific Wren I've seen in my birding time, and I'm very grateful to Justin for the awesome find.

Now for a brief overview on the tiny Pacific Wren:  The Pacific Wren was formerly considered one species with it's eastern counterpart, the Winter Wren.  Two distinct "western" and "eastern" populations exist in North America, with no range overlap.  One is dark colored, the other light colored.  Also, they both sound very different from one another, both in song and in call-note tone.  Both give double-call notes with the Western (Pacific) sounding like a Wilson's Warbler, and the Eastern (Winter) sounding like a Song Sparrow.  These differences were evident to birders and biologists, and the distinct populations were rightfully split into two species, the western form of damp western forests along the coast being called Pacific Wren, and the eastern form being called Winter Wren.  Both species are very secretive, often being referred to as having "mouse-like" behavior.  In Arizona, the Pacific Wren has breed in very small numbers in moist canyons in the higher elevations of the central part of the state.  They have been thought to be the more regularly occurring of the two species in Arizona, and are usually annual in dense understory and thickets in riparian woodlands.  Ever since the two species were split, birders have payed more attention to the species.  The eastern Winter Wren was thought to be extremely rare to the state, but since the split they have been found in small but seemingly regular winter numbers.  The Winter Wren has even appeared to be more of regular winter visitor than the more expected Pacific Wren in recent years.  Time will tell the status of these two micro-birds in Arizona.

For me, I've seen six Winter Wrens, and now, only two Pacific Wrens.

Photos of the PACIFIC WREN:

These wrens are very hard to photograph due to their fast mouse-creeping behavior.  These actually aren't bad shots considering the source:

And then, the wren decided to perch, and I got a much better shot.  Because it's a Pacific Wren and it's secretive behavior, there will always be an object in the way somewhat.....

And also here is my report from the Arizona/New Mexico Birding Listserv...

Hi everyone,

Justin Jones and I spent over 3 hours birding Rio Salado in Central Phoenix.  
Our best highlight of the day was relocating a PACIFIC WREN that Justin heard a 
few days earlier.  This bird gave typical Wilson's Warbler-like callnotes.  Both 
audio and pictures were taken of the Pacific Wren.  This bird was on the south 
side of the Salt River in dense willows, which is mostly dry, probably several 
hundred yards west of Central Avenue.  The river channel is rarely dry so it was 
nice to explore the habitat.  Further west from the wren was Justin's continuing 
EASTERN PHOEBE that he's observed since November.  We also had 3 different 
BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLERS.  It was a good morning with 45 species tallied.

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)


  1. Thanks for the education lesson on these 2 species and congrats of the find and the photos!

  2. Under that bridge/overpass at the Central Rio Salado is the best place to find Black-throated Grays in the PHoenix area, at least in my experiences. Never saw Eastern Phoebe though.
    It was funny to see a report coming from there on the listserv. I know they host the Brids n' Beers thing there, but apart form the nice visitors center I have never, ever seen anybody else birding in that area, and I used to go pretty often when we lived nearer by. It was one of those weird coincidences I guess.

    Anyway, great work with the Pacific Wren! With the exception of Cactus and Canyon, the Wrens always make photography hard, and Pacific/Winter have got to be the worst. You did em' proud though. I love that they have no neck whatsoever.

    You're a prodigious writer Tommy; I'm really enjoying this blog.