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Nature

Good Natured: Winter wren proves region's own cave dweller

Tiny and elusive, the winter wren, Troglodytes hiemalis, measures just 4 inches long. Troglodytes means cave dweller, and refers to the reclusive bird’s habit of disappearing into crevices as it hunts for insects, spiders and other small arthropods.
Tiny and elusive, the winter wren, Troglodytes hiemalis, measures just 4 inches long. Troglodytes means cave dweller, and refers to the reclusive bird’s habit of disappearing into crevices as it hunts for insects, spiders and other small arthropods.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought of the TriCities, or even the greater Chicago region, as a hotbed for cave dwellers. But what do I know?

Turns out I’ve actually seen three for the year, so far. Each time the encounters were brief, so much so that I questioned whether I’d actually seen anything at all. But after the most recent sighting, I decided to do a little investigating. Sure enough, the cave dwellers are here, in the form of Troglodytes hiemalis, the winter wren.

Named for its habit of creeping in and out of small holes and crevices, like a teensy troglodyte, aka cave dweller, this tiny bird visits our area during spring and fall migration. But unlike some seasonal visitors that arrive en masse or announce their presence with loud flutters, flaps or calls, the secretive winter wren shows itself only briefly, leaving witnesses wondering whether they’ve really seen anything at all.

My first winter wren encounter was in early April, near the lovely ephemeral pond at Harley Woods in Campton Township. It was one of those warm spring days that makes you start to believe that winter is really, truly done. The sun was out and so were the mourning cloak butterflies, chorus frogs and wood ducks. Woodland wildflowers were everywhere and, to make the afternoon even more perfect, I hadn’t found a single tick.

Enthralled by the signs of the season, I’d sat down on a fallen tree to ponder my next move – listen for spring peepers or search for salamander eggs? Then I happened to notice something dark dart off to my left. I looked in that direction and saw … nothing.

I was about to turn my attention back to the pond when it happened again. A brief scuttling, a glimpse of a small, dark form and then, again, nothing at all.

The effect was similar to what we used to see in cartoons, where a character (Wile E. Coyote comes to mind) would hide himself behind a bush, pick it up, scurry, halt and repeat, each time getting closer to his (Roadrunner) quarry. Only in this case, the fact that the small, dark creature was coming closer was mere coincidence. I was not the intended quarry, but instead a lucky spectator to a winter wren’s energetic foraging.

I shifted on my log perch and quietly pulled my camera from its case. The next time I saw movement, I pointed and clicked and captured a photo of the woodland floor. No wren.

A minute or so later, the little bird popped up again, and I clicked off another shot – of the woods from a slightly different angle.

The wren, aware of my presence but apparently not put off by it, continued foraging, though now in a slightly different direction. Every couple of minutes, when it would show itself for a nanosecond or two, it would be just that much farther away.

After about 20 minutes, I gave up. Disappointed, but not altogether unhappy – it was, after all, a glorious day to be out – I slid off the log and made my way over to and into the pond. (Did I mention I was wearing knee boots?)

Only later on, when I was back home and able to view the day’s digital images on my laptop screen, did I see that the wren and I did get our timing right. Once. The bird, only slightly blurry, was perched on a log, smack in the middle of the second-from-last picture. A glorious day, indeed!

Since then, I’ve seen winter wrens on two other occasions. It would be too presumptuous to say it was the same bird, but both sightings were in the same area – the dense vegetation along the south border of the Hickory Knolls parking lot.

If you’d like to spot a winter wren of your own, your best bet is to go off in search of something else first. Aim for something easy, like, say, squirrels, or maybe the woodland fungi that have been so beautiful.

Pay special attention to areas that have lots of leaf litter as well as hiding places – exposed roots, hollow logs and the like – with dark, miniature cave-like openings. But beware. Troglodytes hiemalis will appear very quickly. And like any good recluse, it will disappear just as fast.

I may not go out of my way to meet cave dwellers in general, but for this little troglodyte, I make an exception. And now, hopefully, you will too.

Note to readers: Visit stcnature.org to learn more about Hickory Knolls Discovery Center. The website states it is nestled at the edge of 130 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and prairies, offering a blend of rustic nature and contemporary comforts.

Live animal displays offer up-close interaction with reptiles native to Illinois. Nature programs for all ages, birthday parties and special events provide guests with educational and social opportunities to connect to the local environment.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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