Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 1, 2009

Southern Sunshine on a Northern Morn

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 pm

Well, it’s official. We’ve arrived at the year 2009 and the end of the ten year state quarter cycle. The State of Michigan version of the 25 cent coin is the ugliest and plainest one in the bunch – an inspired design that shows only the slightly raised outline of the state surrounded by all of the great lakes. Yes, even Lake Ontario is included even though we have no land connection to that body of water what-so-ever. I’m sure the committee thought long and hard on their decision not to include Lake Champlain in the final design.

Every other state in the union chose to illustrate at least one natural or cultural symbol to represent it. Grizzly bears, Loons, Scissor-tail Flycatchers, guitars and Sugar Maple trees play a prominent visual role  in this historic line-up of coinage.  South Carolina, for instance, went with a  depiction of a Carolina Wren (their state bird) and a palm tree on their two bit piece. In a bold Michigan type move, they even went so far as  to include an outline of their state in the design. Michigan was going to sue for the idea theft, but were pre-occupied with Lake Ontario land claim suits filed against it by the state of New York and the province of Ontario.

I am warmed by one thought, however, as we forge ahead into the chilly winter days of the new year. That same Carolina Wren so lovingly depicted on the South Carolina quarter has become a regular sight here in S.E. Michigan. This southern bird has expanded it’s range into the northern states over the course of the past 50 years or so and they are now a common permanent resident in this neck of the woods. Their clear throaty song can be heard at any time of the year, but winter happens to be one of the best times to see and hear Carolina Wrens.

The calls of this bird are very unwrenlike in tone. Whereas their kin issue harsh or scrambled vocalizations, the Carolina Wren belts out a clear fruity tune which has been characterized as “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle.”  I recorded this song (listen here) only a few weeks ago on a clear crisp winter morning. In this case, the songster was the open-mouthed individual pictured above. He was filling the air with his Dixie song-stylings from within the protective cover of a Gray Dogwood thicket. Although males are the primary songsters, both sexes will let out a worried “Churl” call (listen here) when filing a complaint. This latter call, like the song, will carry quite a distance through the dry winter air.

A prominent white eye stripe, combined with a white throat, buff belly and a long bill are the key visual features for this large wren species, but they are more often heard than seen. They sing throughout the year and thus their call is an ever present reminder of their ever presence. As a species they are non-migratory and monogamous, so when a pair takes up residence in the neighborhood they generally stick around through thick and thin.

Oddly enough, as hardy and persistent as Carolina Wrens are, they can be very cold-sensitive. Their northward expansion has been  interrupted by severe winter weather events over the years. The winter of 1977-78 knocked ’em for a loop. It took the better part of a decade before they finally recovered and exceeded their pre-1977 numbers in lower Michigan and N.W. Ohio. Thick blankets of snow are especially harmful because these birds are basically ground feeders. We could see their numbers plummet again if this winter proves deadly, but at least we can be assured they will bounce back.

At present, they are on the advance – bringing southern charm to a northern state in the throes of coin confusion.

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