|Rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) at the pig pen.|
In August while admiring the lacy cudweed pillows behind the barn, I noticed a bird hopping in the speckled light of the pig pen. It was a plain-looking bird, just another LBJ (little brown job), except it had a distinct way of flitting from one object to the next.
The bird had a long, curved bill, and was cinnamon-brown on its upper back and grey-blue with dark flecks on its lower back. This pattern didn't match any of the birds I usually see in the yard: junco, black phoebe, California quail, Stellar jay, scrub jay, acorn woodpecker, house finch, western bluebird, brown towhee, ash-throated flycatcher, band-tailed pigeon and certainly not turkey vulture. And it didn't match the occasional visitors such as yellow-rumped warbler, Say's phoebe, American robin, northern flicker, red-breasted sapsucker, and so on. I went to get my binoculars.
|The barn provides the rock wren flying insects and spiders to eat and a place to hide.|
My first thought was maybe it was a cuckoo. Years ago, a juvenile yellow-billed cuckoo visited a phenomenally successful riparian restoration site I helped plant along Coyote Creek in San Jose. Cuckoos like riparian forests but are rarely seen in this area, so we took it as a good sign that our restoration work was heading in the right direction. I hadn't seen a yellow-billed cuckoo since, I just remembered it had a curved bill and some type of wedged pattern to its long tail. I went to get my camera, rushed to get the 200 mm lens mounted and grabbed my tripod on the way out the kitchen door.
The bird was still inspecting the pig shed. As I approached slowly, it came out to meet me. It seemed curious. It was bobbing up and down and turning its head sidewise towards me. I crept forward and took lots of photos. After awhile, the bird flew from the pig pen to a bulldozer parked next to the barn. We played hide and seek round and round the dozer. Then it hopscotched across the gravel in front of the barn as I peered around the red corner. After an hour of entertaining each other, it was getting dark and I lost sight of my new friend.
|Top view of rock wren tail.|
I had never seen a rock wren before, so I checked the range and habitat descriptions. Rock wrens have a broad range in western states with their habitat listed as rock outcrops. There are no rock outcrops near the Dipper farmyard. I queried the seasonal barcharts at the eBird website to see how often and when rock wrens have been reported in San Mateo County. The reports were few and limited to the coastal part of the county: a single rock wren once in October 1999, once in December 2008, and four times in February 2009. Rock wrens have been more frequently seen breeding inland at nearby Santa Clara County. Was this an unusual sighting or was I just fooling myself? I turned to Facebook. I posted a few of the photos and asked a birding friend to check. She enthusiastically confirmed it was a rock wren.
|The rock wren inspects a pile of metal debris with many crevices much like rock piles.|
I was delighted to quickly receive responses from several experts of our local bird world who confirmed that my visitor was a rock wren, possibly a juvenile that had dispersed from the rocky cliffs of Devil's Canyon which is about a mile away from the Dipper Ranch (as the wren flies), and this was the first reported sighting of a rock wren in San Mateo County in a couple of years. A birding friend (and hopefully a future guest writer for this blog) came by and we spent an hour watching the rock wren catch dusk-flying insects. Amusingly, when the wren caught a large insect, it ducked under the barn door as if to consume its prize in private.
|This juvenile rock wren is now on its own and appears to have successfully learned to feed itself. It is probably trying to find its own territory with food and shelter and eventually a mate.|
Having recently gotten so much help identifying this bird, I intend to be more patient the next time someone asks me to identify a plant. And tonight, I will finally start a Links page to the Dipper Ranch blog. I haven't taken the time before, but geez, we are talking about experts and homework, right? First, I will post tonight's bird sources, and over time, I expect to list more links, other natural history bloggers and cite books I commonly refer to when seeking information about natural resources of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Come back and check it out.