Posted by: atowhee | December 1, 2014

THE AMERICAN BABBLER

Once again today I heard, and didn’t see, a singing male Wrentit at Ashland Pond.  The distribution of this unique American bird (only member of its family this side of the Bering Strait) is an example of both adaptation and inflexibility in this species.  Famously, the Wrentit is sedentary, rarely wanders far and eschews open water.  Thus the species’ northern range limit is now the south bank of the Columbia River.  Its ancestors must surely have come across the Siberian land bridge eons ago and moved south only to be isolated from all over babblers (widespread in Old World forests) and marooned south of the Columbia River when it was formed after gigantic ice sheets melted.  In Uganda once I saw a dark brown, skulking babbler with a big voice…larger than our Robin.  It looked and sounded much like an over-stuffed Wrentit.

Here in southern Oregon the Wrentit is found in scrub and heavy thickets, mostly at lower elevations. Most likely locations in Jackson County are along the Rogue River and then south along the Bear Creek riparian corridor.  Willows, cottonwoods and blackberry thickets often signal Wrentit presence.  It seems most likely that our Jackson County Wrentits arrived here by spreading from the coast up the Rogue River Canyon and then along the corridors of its major tributaries, like Bear Creek.  BIRDS OF OREGON (Marshall, Hunter & Contreras) points out the species is still expanding its range.  Not in weeks or months like the explosion of the Eurasian Collared-Dove, nor even over a few decades like the Starling or Red-shouldered Hawk, but one thicket to the next…ever so slowly.

EBird does show a record for the Klamath Falls area at slightly over 4000′.  Otherwise the bird is not seen east of the Sierra Nevada crest or the Cascades further north.  The species is also found in the Sierra Foothills and some higher plateaus in California.  It is most abundant along the California and Oregon coasts wherever brush dominates and forests are broken or absent altogether.  There hillsides often are alive with singing male Wrentits, each bouncing his only vocal rubber ball downhill at requent intervals. The habitats most likely to be home to the Wrentit are coastal scrub and inland chaparral.  They are not treetop singers, quite able to sing loudly while staying concealed in brush humans do not penetrate.  I have yet to meet anyone who gets Wrentit to come to a suet or seed feeder.  They are not a suburban adapter like the Mockingbird or House Finch.

The Audubon Society’s recent climate change report on North American birds gives no map for the Wrentit, but the American Dipper, also found on our low elevation streams here in southernmost Oregon does have a map.  The Audubon projections are very bleak for that species.  If the climate does get hotter and dryer and plants like blackberry disappear the Wrentit is not going to be able to nest in sagebrush and feed on open ground.

wrentit by palmerThis Wrentit photo was taken at Ashland Pond some months ago by Majorie Palmer, a birder visiting Ashland from the Olympic Peninsula.  This is a bird she’s not going to see in her own backyard 200 miles north of the Columbia, the Wrentit demarcation line.  These birds are very hard to photograph because they do not often appear in public, preferring their seclusion and being undercover.  Their territory is year-round so I have heard one sing in January during a snowstorm.  “My thicket.  Stay out.”


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