ALWAYS IN SEASON: Marsh wrens make Lonetree wetland special

Probably every birder has a short list of special places, places that seem magical because, whatever the weather, whatever the circumstances, they always produce good birds.

Probably every birder has a short list of special places, places that seem magical because, whatever the weather, whatever the circumstances, they always produce good birds.

For me, one such place is a bend in a gravel road in Sheridan County.

This is three hours west of Grand Forks, and I don't get there as often as I'd like. When I do, however, the birds reward me.

The place is within Lonetree Wildlife Management Area, one of the largest blocks of publicly owned land in North Dakota.

This is Pothole Country, and the bend skirts a little lake. When the ice is off, the lake almost always has pelicans and western grebes, and there are sometimes as many as a dozen different species of ducks.


Once, I came over the hill to find a flock of 100 or more Franklin's gulls spread out on the road, loafing, I think. These are beautiful birds, the most graceful and attractive of the gulls, I think.

Franklin's gulls are among the black-headed gulls, and this feature distinguishes them from other nesting gulls (though not all migrating gulls) in our part of the world.

Last week, the gulls were flying above Sheyenne Lake, probably catching insects. Such behavior is typical of Franklin's gulls. They often follow farm equipment, catching the insects that rise from the fields.

That's how I first learned Franklin's gulls, and so they are among the first of my bird acquaintances.

The bend in the road has produced other notable sightings, including short-eared owls. These birds are characteristic of grasslands. The area just north of Kelly Slough west of Grand Forks is among the best spots in our area to see them.

The Lonetree short-eared owl was memorable for two reasons. First, I was with a birding friend who had never seen one. Such a "lifer" -- an addition to a life list -- is always rewarding. Second, the owls entertained us for many minutes, flying parallel with our vehicle and looking into the window, almost as if watching us. This, too, is familiar behavior for short-eared owls, and it never fails to amaze and excite me.

Like I said, this is a magical place.

The spot has also produced winter specialties, including rough-legged hawks and snowy owls, both Arctic species that come south in late fall and sometimes spend much of the winter here.


But none of these dramatic species captivated us last week. Instead, we encountered a group of marsh wrens. Marsh wrens are fairly common, but they are very hard to see.

These birds, however, displayed themselves wantonly as we watched.

As the name implies, marsh wrens are wetlands denizens, preferring thick stands of reeds, including bulrush and cattail. Males build multiple nests and compete vigorously for mates, several each season.

Competition takes the form of singing battles. As a result, marsh wrens have a complex array of utterances, most of them loud and many of them prolonged. Few of these are especially musical. So eminent an observer as John James Audubon dismissed the sound of the marsh wren as "the grating of a rusty hinge."

In full view, the marsh wren shows a rich buff plumage accented with black piping on the tail and wings. The most important field mark, aside from habitat, is a prominent white line above the eye. Some other wren species show this mark, too.

Like other wrens, the marsh wren holds its tail erect, probably for balance, since it would otherwise be front-loaded. As it is, the wren appears unstable, teetering back and forth even while clinging to a grass stem.

The marsh wren is described as "long-billed marsh wren" in older bird books. Sedge wren, formerly "short-billed marsh wren," occurs here, also. The birds are similar; sedge wrens choose drier habitats, sometimes including fields.

Several years ago, acting on impulse, my birding friend and I bought land adjoining Lonetree. We call our holding "Lonetree Labor Camp" because it requires so much work.


But we make time to check this special spot on each of our visits because we don't want to miss the magic.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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