Tuesday 22 January 2013

Good things in small, feathered packages

It's no secret I'm a lover of birds in general, and there's something about tiny birds that particularly intrigues me. How can these seemingly delicate creatures, with only a shroud of soft feathers and their wits to protect them, possibly survive in the big, wide world full of predators and hazards? But they do, and in a tropical setting like that of Trinidad, where I am as I write this, they generally thrive. There are some 460 bird species on record here - not bad for an island that's only about 65 miles long and 50 miles wide - and it boasts one of the most dense bird populations in the world. The country's national bird is the stunning, swamp-dwelling Scarlet Ibis but even the smallest birds come in some colourful forms like the wee Blue-chinned Sapphire hummingbird (picture below left), and more unusual looking characters like stubby little Golden-headed Manakin (below right).

While I get a thrill out of seeing the brightly coloured bird varieties, it's sometimes the less conspicuous birds that make the most impact. For instance, I feel a special affinity for wrens - tiny brown birds often best identified by their jaunty tail carriage - and they have become a reoccurring subject for my art. 

Drawing of a fledgling Winter Wren.
"Wren and Salmonberry" coloured pencil drawing.

"Bird on a Wire: Marsh Wren"
coloured pencil drawing.
Most of the time wrens flit inconspicuously among foliage, making it challenging to observe them. However, when it's their nesting season they display the outgoing side of their nature by perching prominently and emitting loud bursts of song that seem mismatched to their tiny bodies and usually reclusive ways. They become fiercely territorial, defying other wrens to even think about crossing the invisible boundaries they have set out for themselves. I have observed this behaviour among Winter Wrens who are abundant in the wooded areas I frequent back home in southwestern Canada. Soon the forest there will come alive with their spring song. I have also observed similar behaviour among Marsh Wrens when visiting the Reifel Bird Sanctuary. At the right time of the spring season I've encountered Marsh Wrens every few yards throughout the sanctuary, clinging to prominent spots among the bulrushes and defining their territory by shouting out loud songs.

I recently spent a couple of days at a rustic cottage on the rugged north coast of Trinidad, enjoying the peaceful combination of crashing surf and towering hills cloaked in tropical rainforest. Bird life was abundant with several types of colourful hummingbirds and tanagers along with numerous other tropical species. However, I was most delighted to find a pair of resident Southern House Wrens living in the clearing around the cottage. Each morning they'd rise and greet the day with a burst of song from a perch among the bougainvillea blossoms.

From time to time throughout the day their song could be heard and the small vocalists observed perched in various favourite locations - perhaps the veranda railing, or a light post, or a branch of a shrub. Later on another prolonged serenade would take place as the afternoon drew to a close and the early nightfall of this latitude set in.

Captivated as I was by these little songsters, they found their way into my sketchbook:

Of course I also enjoyed the other interesting birds in the area, such as a flock of Smooth-billed Anis who came to the cottage grounds one morning to gather plump, green grasshoppers for their breakfast. Their prehistoric looking faces made me think about the linkages between birds and their dinosaur ancestors!

A Smooth-billed Ani munching on a large grasshopper.

But it's the little brown wrens and their vibrant song I'll remember best from my stay at the cottage. Soon I'll carry that memory home to Canada where the spring song of their more northerly cousins will be only a few weeks away.

1 comment:

  1. I too have always loved how the wrens' voices are disproportionate to their little bodies. They many not be colourful like many Caribbean birds, but their voice is certainly distinctive!