Wild Ideas: The little brown bird of the forest

The diversity of animal species out and about shrinks drastically in winter, and the forest around my house is often quite quiet, especially during stretches of unusually cold weather such as we’ve experienced this winter. However, every once in a while I get a surprise and see something unusual, especially during brief warm spells.

Although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the winter wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org.Paul Stein via Wikimedia
Although it is only four inches long, “per unit weight, the winter wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster,” according to AllAboutBirds.org.

After we got about five inches of snow on the mountain, I checked my lawn and nearby paths going into the woods and could only find the tracks of two deer going down the mountain. It looked like pretty much all the other animals were holed up, waiting for warmer weather, as I went back to doing after my brief stroll.

A few days later, the temperature soared to just above freezing — balmy after the bitter weather that had preceded it. After hauling in some firewood, I decided to check one of the forest trails again for animal tracks. This time I saw a convergence of several sets of tracks. Some were of deer, but it looked like a few other animals had ventured a short way up the trail, which goes further up the mountain. With the strong winds we’d had the night before, the tracks were drifted over with snow enough that I gave up trying to sort them out.

This trail goes through a pretty stretch of forest, with small, braided streams wandering through tumble-downs of mossy rocks to join a larger stream further down. On the other side, a steep hill shoots up to give a lovely backdrop to the riparian area. Any time of the year, I love the view there, and with the snow it was beautiful.

As I was admiring the view, movement of a small brown animal in the nearest stream, about five yards away, caught my eye. A tiny bird was moving in and out of sight among the rocks as it foraged.

Virginia has a lot of what are commonly known as “little brown birds” by birders — birds that are small, brown and hard to distinguish from each other. This LBB had the general outline and quick, jaunty movements of a wren but was only about four inches, smaller than a Carolina wren and even the house wren.

Its tail was short too, but at the upward angle of a wren. A rich, coffee-colored brown, I didn’t see any white bars on its wings or the white “eyebrow” characteristic of wrens, so was unsure about the species. Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought my binoculars and the sun had already slipped behind the mountain, so I couldn’t get a really good look at the little bird.

In watching the bird for a while, I discerned another of the species hunting around among the rocks in the stream just beyond the first one. Wrens tend to be very chatty, and these birds were only making a quiet, simple two-note chipping call, but since they were hunting for food, not defending territory, I knew identifying them by sound would be tricky.

In talking with my brother in Alaska in our usual weekly chat, he suggested the bird might be an American dipper. They are common up where he lives, but I couldn’t remember seeing any here, only out west, and it had been a while since I’d been there. After our conversation, I dug into my Peterson and Sibley bird guides and visited AllAboutBirds.org.

Tinier than our other wrens, the eastern winter wren is also more subtly colored and not seen as much, since it works dark, damp forest floors for invertebrates.Shanthanu Bhardwaj via Wikimedia
Tinier than our other wrens, the eastern winter wren is also more subtly colored and not seen as much, since it works dark, damp forest floors for invertebrates.

I first looked up the American dipper and found that it was not native to the East, medium-sized and gray. North America’s “only truly aquatic songbird,” according to the site, “it catches all of its food underwater in swiftly flowing streams by swimming and walking on the stream bottom.”

Next I checked out the wren family in my guides and online. While I had ruled out the house and Carolina species, I’d forgotten about the eastern winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), a species that is common here in winter but mostly sticks to the forest.

“Mouselike,” as Peterson puts it, the winter wren forages on the ground for invertebrates in damp, shaded areas, especially those with fallen logs that serve as hosts for bugs. This stretch along the stream fit that description, but I was somewhat surprised that they were actually hunting in the shallow stream. Perhaps the fact that the forest floor was still covered with several inches of snow led them to search where there was no snow, along and in the stream.

I also learned that winter wrens have a quiet “kip-kip” call, like song sparrows. According to AllAboutBirds.org, when they do sing, it’s loud: “Per unit weight, the winter wren delivers its song with 10 times more power than a crowing rooster.”​

In viewing photos of the winter wrens, I found that they can be quite dark, with very subtle wing bars and sometimes sport only a faint eyebrow mark (or none at all). After further viewing videos of the birds at the Macaulay Library’s website (search for “winter wren” and click on the video tab), I felt comfortable with the ID. Now I have another reason for going up this trail besides the beautiful forest view, and next time I’ll also listen for their song.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”