NATURE’S VIEW: The Chattering Songbird of the Salt Marsh

Story and photographs by Jim Clark

In an earlier column I gave praise to the seaside sparrow, a species common to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but rarely sought after by nature photographers. This column is on one of my all-time favorite songsters: Cistothorus plaustris, the marsh wren, a denizen of freshwater and tidal brackish marshes with robust stands of bulrush, cattail and cordgrass.

The marsh wren is every bit as inconspicuous as the seaside sparrow, but two qualities make it stand out. It is curious as all get-out, and it loves to sing.

Marsh wrens have to figure you out, and they will approach as near as arm’s length to do so. Even when you can’t see them, they are likely watching you; sometimes closer than you think.

Jim Songbird

The domain of the marsh wren, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. © Jim Clark

The other giveaway is its song. Once you hear the marsh wren’s bubbling repertoire of chattering melodies, you will have little trouble recognizing it on future ventures into its wetland domain. A marsh is not a marsh without the wren’s enthusiastic and rapid chatter resonating throughout the tidal landscape. And this little feathered ball of dynamism not only sings during the day, but also at all hours of the night.

If there ever was a bird that appears to be highly caffeinated, then it’s the marsh wren. Bursting with energy unmatched by other marsh dwellers, marsh wrens are always active—gleaning insects while flying just above the marsh vegetation, defending its territory from intruders, including photographers, and constructing domed nests of grasses and sedges to the tune of a dozen or more; the latter, a selective advantage for the male to have more homes to deter potential predators and to impress the ladies. The males are kind of a polygamous sort, so the more homes the more potential mates.

Although a common wetland bird, the marsh wren is not an easy one to photograph. You must be ready at a moment’s notice. The classic composition is when the wren perches on grass stems and holds itself up by spreading its legs across two stalks. Who can resist breaking a smile when they see this priceless pose? But be quick as the wren is not likely to hold a pose for your convenience.

Marsh wren, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland. ©Jim Clark

Marsh wren, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland. ©Jim Clark

When photographing the marsh wren, I use a 600mm lens with a 1.4 extender on a sturdy tripod. My camera is set for dynamic autofocus and a high continuous frame rate. I also start with my camera set to its native ISO, increasing it only when I need more speed.

I take advantage of the wren’s curiosity and wait for it to approach me. Once the wren is in position for a decent image, I fire away. And I don’t stop at one image. I stay put and use patience to my advantage. My best advice to you is that once you’ve spotted a marsh wren, plan to stay awhile. It will entertain you for hours.

Marsh wren, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland. © Jim Clark

Marsh wren, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland. © Jim Clark

 


A past NANPA president, Jim Clark is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. You can find Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com, or visit him on Facebook.

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