We all know that bigger is not necessarily better, but still many people strive for big houses, luxurious cars, grand vacations, high-paying jobs, and the like, as if we could not be satisfied with anything smaller. A few of us, a bit more removed from the mainstream, instead of striving for larger material things, work for large life-lists of birds, or bigger big days or big years. Also, while most birders say that we really like little birds as much as big ones, it’s hard not to become more excited when we view a Great Horned Owl or a Sandhill Crane than when we view a Screech-Owl or a rail (unless it’s a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail) or a wren. I know that some of my delight in large birds is because they are usually much easier to find and to see.
Sometimes, finding a very small bird can bring much pleasure, however, even if it is not rare. Of course, finding a rare bird is wonderful, no matter whether it is large or small. That is particularly true if we have to work hard to find the bird or if we get a very good look at it.
My thoughts on bird size were set in motion on a recent driving trip that I took in eastern Pennington County, south of Wall. It had been a non-noteworthy drive. I had stopped at my standard viewing areas (the Wall sewage ponds and a lake just north of Quinn), and then headed south across areas with fields and Badland views. The most common birds had been Mourning Doves, Western Meadowlarks, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Bullock’s Orioles, American Kestrels, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Lark Buntings and Starlings.
A large part of my trip homeward was along Base Line Road, one of the main cross-country roads that heads generally back toward Rapid City from the Wall area. There are miles and miles of grassy, gently rolling golden fields, scattered cows, and very few birds in August along Base Line Road. Nevertheless, I usually drive slowly along the road in any season, windows rolled down, hoping to hear or see something besides grass and cows and meadowlarks. Every now and then, there is an isolated farm house and yard, and periodically, there are picturesque fallen or falling-down old homes and outbuildings, sometimes with a few trees, where I look (usually in vain) for a perched bird. Only a few times are there small ponds or other wet-appearing green areas.
On this particular driving trip, I was wondering whether the Dickcissels had all migrated away already as I approached one such green area. To my delight, I heard a perky little multipart chattery call and of course immediately thought, “Dickcissel” and then immediately realized that it was definitely not a Dickcissel. It was a very unexpected bird, a Sedge Wren!
For those of you not familiar with the normal range of Sedge Wrens, you need to know a couple of things: Pennington County is in far western South Dakota; Birds of South Dakota (Tallman et al., 2002) only shows two sightings west of the Missouri River; the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Dunn et al.) only shows Sedge Wrens in eastern South Dakota; and I had never heard or seen a Sedge Wren in western South Dakota nor talked to anyone else who had. I was ecstatic. The Sedge Wren was singing its head off, hopping up and down in the few low bushes that were out in the… yes… sedges! It was so engrossed in its singing that it ignored me completely as I snapped photos and took videos of the singing bird.
Later that day, after I posted my sighting on the sd-birds listserv, at least a couple of other birders also got to see and hear the singing Sedge Wren.
A Sedge Wren is under five inches long. It is small. But it is one of my biggest sightings for 2013.