I keep thinking about the migrant Marsh Wren I discovered in its temporary 
home, a tiny remnant of Cattails in Newman Golf Course. I’m accustomed to 
seeing and hearing Marsh Wrens only during the breeding season and in huge 
Cattail marshes like we find in parts of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. 
Perhaps “my” bird was eventually headed to Montezuma, or someplace similar. 

A hundred and ten years ago, when Lab of O founder Arthur Allen was researching 
his thesis on the ecology of Red-winged Blackbirds, his study site was the 
marsh at the south end of Cayuga Lake. I once read that thesis, and as I 
recall, his map showed the marsh covering what is now most of Allan H Treman 
State Marine Park, Cass Park, and Newman Golf Course. He included a note of 
dismay that the marsh was ruined in 1912 when Cayuga Inlet was dredged for 
shipping, and the spoils were thrown up on the banks, wrecking the natural 
drainage of the marsh. Today we can play on dry land because that whole area 
was further filled with dredge spoils (and worse stuff!) in the ensuing 
decades. But if I remember correctly, Marsh Wrens were among the many species 
the thesis listed as present. So, the ancestors of the bird I saw might have 
lived right where I found it. 

That was my perspective. Marsh Wrens live in big marshes. Finding one in a tiny 
marsh is odd, a surprise, the exception, maybe an emergency situation. Only a 
couple other times do I recall finding a migrant Marsh Wren, and it was in a 
place it would not have bred, for example the ditch between the back of 
Wegman’s and the parking lot for the Eagles Club on Cecil Malone Drive. That 
area may have been extensive Cattail marsh, too, within my lifetime. We humans 
have destroyed a lot of big marshes, and my migrating bird was lucky to find 
even a bit of marsh, I thought. 

But I wasn’t thinking like a migrant. That bird did not stop at Newman Golf 
Course last Friday morning in order to breed there. It only needed shelter and 
food for a few hours. You don’t buy a house and a farm when you’re on the road. 
You eat at a diner, rent a bed in a motel room, and then you keep going. There 
may be hardships during migration requiring “any port in a storm,” but the 
weather that night was mild, and the was wind helpful, so that leg of the 
bird’s journey was pretty ordinary. And if all you need is a few square yards 
of marsh, then maybe migration needn’t be too stressful. There are probably 
ditches with Cattails all over the eastern US, maybe pretty easy to find, 
generally ignored by people, and the smaller the bit of marsh, the less likely 
it is to be occupied by some other bird who is defending turf to raise a 

Before people drained marshes, dug ditches, and built railroads, there were 
beavers, landslides, floods, and river meanders creating wetlands, while 
succession filled them in. Habitats change naturally*, so birds who migrate 
must be ready to look for alternative sites to breed or to rest en route. Maybe 
stopovers in tiny isolated Cattail stands are a useful strategy or even 
standard practice among migrating Marsh Wrens. [*Natural change of habitats is 
not a defense or excuse for the absurdly rapid and extensive changes that 
people cause.]

Now I’m wondering how many times I’ve passed a few Cattails during migration 
and been unaware of a quiet Marsh Wren resting and fattening up for a day or 
two until the winds are favorable again. And I wonder why my bird was quietly 
singing early in the morning. Maybe it was telling other Marsh Wrens, “This 
ditch is occupied, go find your own single-bird-sized piece of habitat!”

I still think habitat conservation is very important, especially for big 
marshes that host breeding populations of many species, but also for smaller 
marshes, and now even tiny ones. 

And that reminds me. On Sunday morning I interrupted my birding bike & hike 
trip to Stewart Park and Renwick Wildwood to join Laurie for a rare car jaunt 
to see the wildflower collection at Mundy. I like wildflowers, especially 
Toadshade, and she enjoyed the FOY Great Crested Flycatcher overhead. While we 
were in the neighborhood I convinced her to take a side trip to the Newman 
Arboretum, specifically to Houston Pond, the one with the boardwalk across the 
middle and marsh on one side. We rested there, admired the coursing Barn 
Swallows, and wondered how to count Red-winged Blackbirds as they keep flying 
in and out of the cattails, how long it takes downy goslings to stop being 
cute, and whether adding a second log or rock in the water would double the 
number of turtles climbing onto each other to bask. Then I heard a grunting 
noise in the marsh, and with some skillful binocular use Laurie had her best 
look ever at a Virginia Rail. 

- - Dave Nutter

> On May 2, 2020, at 6:35 AM, Dave Nutter <nutter.d...@me.com> wrote:
> Yesterday morning I biked through the mist to Stewart Park on the Cayuga 
> Waterfront Trail, assiduously inputting every ID into eBird as I went. 
> Passing between the TCAT bus garage and Newman Golf Course on Pier Rd, I 
> heard something odd, a bit of jumbled rattle, perhaps a distant Gray Catbird. 
> I paused to listen. It turned out the sound was not far away, it was close, 
> but quiet. At the edge of the golf course, a few feet from where I had 
> stopped, was a small ditch, home to some dead cattails. I could have 
> stretched my hands from one side of the marsh to the other, and it was only 
> 40 or 50 feet long, with vast clipped green lawns on 3 sides. My side had 
> pavement, a bike path along a road. But in that cattail patch I heard a 
> subdued Marsh Wren, a species which is common in Montezuma, but unusual in 
> Tompkins County. I edged closer, and without any further prompting the bird 
> poked its head up and briefly scanned me. I imagined its consternation, 
> ending a night of migration by descending into fog, desperately searching for 
> - then happily finding - some marsh, but as the day brightened discovering 
> that the extent of the marsh was so limited. And then humans started coming 
> by, so close! Marsh Wrens seem pretty good at hunkering down, but I bet this 
> one looked forward to finding a bigger piece of habitat. 
> - - Dave Nutter


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