Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Mystery in the Marsh

 A Marsh Wren is a proud little bird with a big attitude. In spite of their diminutive size, the males will climb to the top of cattails and fill the world with song. They strictly enforce their territorial aspirations, by destroying the eggs of encroaching birds, it does not matter if the competitor is a Marsh Wren or not.

Their songs are filled with buzzes and harsh trills. To me, they often sound more mechanical than musical. If you would like to hear for yourself just Click Here. Cornell's website, All About Birds, has a nice collection of songs, including one with video.

More than once I have photographed a Marsh Wren opening its mouth so wide their eyes seem to automatically close. When pedestrians and bicyclists pass by, I wonder if it irritates the Marsh Wrens and makes them sing louder.

Marsh Wrens are the wren species you are most likely to find in a Marsh. However, they also have an obvious feature which can help you make a positive ID.

When you can see the Marsh Wren's back the black mantle with its white vertical markings is hard to miss. However, the natural purpose of the mantle is a mystery to me.

If the mantle was there to impress females or competing males, then I would expect the unique feathers would be positioned so they could be displayed to creatures in front of the wren. For example, the upper-side of the tail feathers in a male Peacock or the undersides of the wings and tail in Northern Flickers. In both cases, these species choose when and to whom they display their impressive feathers. Turning your back on someone in to impress them does not seem like a logical approach. How would you know if they are impressed?

On the other hand, perhaps the patch on the back is there to provide camouflage. Male Marsh Wren's are most exposed when they sit on top of the local vegetation and sing their loudest. That is the precise moment when having camouflage on the back might be most useful. However, when the Marsh Wren sings it lifts its head, scrunches the mantle and makes it appear smaller. If the purpose of the mantle is to provide camouflage would it not work better if it covered more of the back and the top of the head.

Also, when birds are young or molting nature often maximizes the use of camouflage. Many times birds in these stages have more streaked, striped or mottled plumage. I suspect the bird in this photo is a young Marsh Wren because of its mottled look and the completely missing tail.

If anything the black mantle on this bird's back looks smaller than the patch we saw on the adult. 

Here is my last argument against camouflage. With the head back singing and the tail up in display position it makes it nearly impossible to see the mantle.

Somehow, I doubt the natural purpose of the striped mantle is to help humans with Marsh Wren identification.

I remain, mystified by the Marsh Wren's mantle.

In addition to their large repertoire of songs, the Marsh Wrens are also skilled weavers. Although it is not obvious, The round patch in the lower middle of this photo is a Marsh Wren's nest. After the supporting cattails dry up the nest is exceptionally well camouflaged. The entry hole looks a little like an eye socket.

However, in the late spring or early summer, when the cattail leaves are still green, the dried leaves of a nest under construction are more obvious.

None the less it would be easy to miss the Marsh Wren in the lower portion of this photo. Its movements were quick and precise as it wove a dried leaf into the structure of the nest.

I had been watching a bird working in this area for a few weeks and had previously seen one (possibly even the same bird) delivering food to a nearby nest. It seemed odd that just a week or so later I would find one building a nest less than 20 feet away. 

A quick refresher from Seattle Audubon's Bird Web reminded me that our local Marsh Wrens build from 14 to 22 dummy nests a year. This not only helps to mystify and confuse potential predators they can also serve as winter roosting locations for the wrens. Plus, the males prefer to have multiple mates and the females can raise more than one brood a year. There are multiple reasons for Marsh Wrens to make more than one nest.

By the way, did you spot the Marsh Wren in this last photo? On the left side just above the green, out-of-focus leaf.

I suspect this wren had been collecting bedding material for the inside of a nest. The wisps of fuzz on each side of the head look like cattail down to me.

By the way, even though Marsh Wrens can sometimes be easily seen, they do spend the bulk of their lives in the lower portion of the cattails. If you happen to hear one singing but cannot find it - stop, look and listen. When you become quiet and observant they are far more likely to show themselves. Besides which, you will get to enjoy the healing power of nature whether you spot the wren or not!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. I hope we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.

Is the cattail the wren is sitting on native to the Pacific Northwest? 

Scroll down for the answer.


Cattail: Typha latifolia is a native plant. Clicking on the yellow highlighted scientific name will take you to the federal government site which, frankly, is somewhat lacking in visual appeal. However, I did find it interesting to read and learn that our common 'broadleaf' cattail is like a first responder to fire or other disturbances. That implies to me that over time other slower growing plants will ultimately grow up and shade it out. It makes me wonder, What does succession planning mean in a managed Natural Area?

Curiously, there is another cattail in the United States. It is commonly called a Narrowleaf Cattail e.g.Typha augustifoliaIt is not native to Washington state. 


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional workaround is to set up my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


  1. The mantel, in my view, is handsome, attractive, hence not needing a frontal display attitude?

    1. Thank you. I agree...but I still wonder why it exists?