Amidst a discordant urban setting of a city along the middle Missouri River, there is a fine haven for the littlest of wrens. When the certain chills of autumn descend and linger on the central plains there is a small place - among others - that becomes a place of birdly importance, essential for species' survival as frigid winds of winter and torpid temperatures abscond upon the formerly pleasant times of the outdoors.
When the season transitions to its invigorating and lowly essence, after a brief night of migratory movement from the north, one avian species that arrived mostly goes unnoticed by nearly all of its larger worldly neighbors, after arriving to reside during several months of cold, and continuing a centuries old transition, but historically known by just a small handful of observant people, for only a relatively short one hundred years.
Winter Wren at the park
The first bit to recollect was written by Miles Greenleaf, while he was starting to write observations that would extend across subsequent decades and establish a profound legacy of bird history. One topic of importance was Elmwood Park, and in 1915, there was only a brief notation for avian species of interest.
A year later, perhaps after another outing to the park - created in 1890 - which was still at the western edge of an expanding city, there were further words of the winter wren in a December issue of the Omaha World-Herald. There was no author given for the bird editorial, but it was probably Miles Greenleaf. If it had been Sandy Griswold, the other prominent outdoor writer for this newspaper, his name would - no doubt - have been given.
"He is about the same size as the House Wren, but his tail is still shorter and points straight up to the zenith. He is ruddier in color, but his habits are about the same, for he lurks in the brush heaps and shrubbery along ravines and creek beds, busily scratching around for food like some tiny little winged mouse. Although he hasn't the rich, heartfelt warble of the Jenny, he has a neat little chirp that will attract you, and remind you of the summer to come.
"It is good to have the counterpart of Miss Jenny with us in the wintertime - and everyone should try to find Mr. and Mrs. Winter Wren during the next few weeks. They are not numerous - but they are here.
"God bless the Winter Wren!"
Bird attractions at the creek within the park continued to be featured in the journalistic writings of this bird enthusiast. This version was in a Bird Lore column of the thriving Omaha Bee News for October 1931. The words were succinct but expressive enough to convey that the subtly appreciated feathered mite had again arrived to tarry in the park environs.
His profound prose of a mostly forgotten era:
"This bird possibly isn't very well known to most of you, and cannot be unless you start looking for him when the frost begins to paint the remaining sumac in the ravines and God is sending down his last collection of glorified leaves from His treetops. Then, and even when the snow is deep about the protective weedplots and underbrush and sheltered gullies, you will find the winter wren - shrewd and lovely counterpart of his summer cousin!
"Zero is just another word with the winter wren, as it is with all our truly winter birds, so fascinating to study and to behold."
Phantasmic view of spring water at Shadow Lake
Lapse ahead another decade, and Greenleaf again had to write about a species noted during the winter which consistently captured his attention. This article was about the winter birds of Elmwood Park, done for the Omaha Sunday Bee News. A few words but enough to convey how the little wren acting like a mouse on the ground was a captivating topic.
In December 1940, Greenleaf wrote about the winter wren in a weekly publication of his own endeavor and initiative, the Dundee News. When writing his Birds and the Outdoors column for the winter, the winter wren was given further media attention in 1942 and 1944, then belatedly in 1950. This species was mentioned in the city newspaper, when there was little or nothing being scribed in the state ornithological journal.
Move ahead nearly five more decades for some more simple notes of revelation that this wren continued to subtly tarry in the park environs during its seasonal times. The wren continued to arrive for the winter, once the house wren had already gone south.
When Clyde and Emma Johnson, a couple that were two icons of ornithology for Nebraska, were on their particular incessant and regular walking forays to the park from their residence - a few blocks eastward on Leavenworth Street - to note the birds of their times, their notes recall the little wren, usually in the midst of its time at the city park during November to December.
A few years later - when it was a new millenium - another representative of the little wren dynamo was a winter resident. It was noted again and again with its bobbing behavior along the fringe of water kept open by warm subterranean springs, notable calls - readily heard by an aficionado of winter birds having a subtle presence - and always appreciated on a frigid morning when bundles of cloths are the required garb for a visitor.
The park setting for the feathered mite provided clues to understand those places where it preferred to reside elsewhere during the winter. Open water was of utmost importance.
Fresh and consistent water during the most frigid times of deep winter are the necessary requisite. If you'd take the time for a foray into the right spot, look and listen closely to view the little wren as it goes about its daily routine. There is no certainty and repeat visits should be expected, and requisite to recognize the habits. At times, the wren appears with a bit of a voice, then can be seen walking along the ground among the natural features whether it is a bunch of fallen tree branches or logs, or some rocks, or just on the edge of the steaming waters where a tasty tidbit can be snatched to provide a nourishing portion for a day's sustenance.
Surveys elsewhere at a myriad of other places with spring water, reveal some more essential moments with the wren. Locales included during a few years of looking: Spring Lake Park, Fontenelle Forest, up north along Ponca Creek at Hummel Park, and beyond into the north lands of the state. This species has been appreciated as well at a short tributary of Long Pine Creek near the village of the same name, westward up the Niobrara River at Buckhorn Springs, Tyler Creek and Falls, Sears Fall, Anderson Bridge WMA and below the cleft at Mogle Falls.
This winter resident is also elsewhere but no one has taken the opportunity to make a survey and determine the value of a some particular place as a refugium for birds during winter months.
Locally, Elmwood Park continues to be one special mecca within the city for the winter wren. As mundane days of winter continue to languish this little bunch of feathers provides a perspective to appreciate for the toils of existence in the harsh settings of winter on the plains.
Crystalline morning at wren haven
A nearby park provides the site where the wrensian view can be readily appreciated, without expenditure of gasoline and a flexibility to consider when to best capture the a view from the perspective of such a little bird species ... the wonderful winter wren in Nebraska.