There have been many unusual birds reported on the Denver Field Ornithologists Rare Bird Alert this winter. My problem is that the gentleman who makes the recording for this service speaks so rapidly that I found it difficult to understand where they were seen.
Of most interested to me were reports of two winter wrens, one northern cardinal, some trumpeter swans and barrow’s goldeneyes. I have seen all of these birds but still consider them worth a trip to see again.
The winter wren is a tiny mite of a bird, a half-inch smaller than a house wren. I saw one many years ago while working on a trail above the Brook Forest Inn. They have a very short tail, which is mostly held upright in wren fashion. This is one of the few circumpolar birds; it is found in Europe, Asia and North America.
There are many forms and races of this species found around the world. Western forms are usually dark-streaked, short-tailed, sharp-billed little birds. The eastern forms are usually paler-breasted than the western forms. They have a short but well-defined eye line (supercilium).
This secretive little bird is often found skulking in and out among the broken branches and roots of fallen trees. In fact, several authors who have written about these birds claimed that they first thought they had seen a mouse creeping about but that upon a second look discovered it was a winter wren.
A few years ago, one was discovered at Lair o’ the Bear open space in a fallen cottonwood along Bear Creek. Bill and I spent many hours sitting on a bench on the opposite side of Bear Creek watching for some movement that might prove to be this little wren, however we never saw that one. He felt it had been disturbed by so many people looking for it that it had moved to some other location.
The winter wren is broadly spaced across the northern part of North America, even in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, during the breeding season. In most areas, it migrates southward for winter into the lower states. Ornithologists have long wondered how this small bird with its little wings and short buzzy flight could migrate long distances, but they do, although it may be in short, interrupted flights.
Nests of the winter wren are round globular masses with an opening on the side. They often look like a knob on the root of a tree or rock, and are difficult to locate with only a very few ever found. The nest is often made of mosses and lichens held together by a framework of small twigs and lined with feathers.
Because of its secretive ways, this bird would probably seldom be seen if it were not for its song. It is the loud, long song that attracts everyone’s attention and without exception everyone who finally sees this hearty singer says they expected all that song to be from a much larger bird.
I can find no record of anyone actually locating a nest of the winter wren in Colorado, although there are a few sight records of the bird during the summer months. However, Bailey states in his “Birds of Colorado” that it had best be considered a winter resident and migrant until there is solid evidence that it does breed in the state.
It could easily be confused with a stubby-tailed juvenile house wren and more studies need to be made on this bird in the state. The trouble is that no one wants to sit for hours in a damp, thickety place where the resident mosquitoes are more plentiful than the birds to find a nest. It will happen someday, but probably not soon.
I should also like to see the northern cardinal, trumpeter swan and barrow’s goldeneyes that have been seen lately. The cardinal is a bird that is especially fond of dense shrub thickets and is to be expected to move west across the plains along the major stream valleys where such growth is beginning to occur. A few years ago, one was found in Wheat Ridge along Clear Creek. It appeared at Echo Lake and at a feeder in Georgetown before it disappeared. As long as cover is available and feeders supply ample quantities of sunflower seeds, they seem to be happy, and the backyards of Denver and Lakewood are maturing enough to supply thick shrubbery. We should in a few years be seeing more cardinals and enjoy their brilliant red color against our winter snow.
Trumpeter swans are becoming more common as more and more of them are being introduced into cemeteries and parks to replace the European mute swan. Barrow’s goldeneyes are regular visitors almost every winter. They like rough, rapidly flowing water and can often be found in the turbulent water below the electric power plant in Estes Park. They can often be seen from the warmth of your car, a distinct advantage in the recent below-zero weather we have been experiencing. There are interesting birds to be seen, so enjoy a little winter birding.