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Finding Wrentits

Looking for Condors,

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about California Condors and how they are slowly coming back from the edge of extinction. I also mentioned that I was hoping to see one of these massive birds on an up-coming trip to the American West. Well, the trip has begun. I’ve heard that a good place to find condors is around the Grand Canyon, but we are starting our trip in San Diego. Why San Diego? In the condor column (in case anyone has forgotten) I wrote that I also want to see Wrentits and Wrentits don’t live near the Canyon. They are only found along the West Coast, i.e., San Diego. And what is a Wrentit, you ask? Good question. Too bad nobody knows.

Even though Wrentits have “wren” in their name, they are not wrens, or even tits for that matter. No one is really sure what they are, except that they are small gray/brown birds, with tiny bills, piercing white eyes and super-long tails. They have the charming habit of pairing up almost immediately after fledging and remaining together for the rest of their lives. In addition, they are strict homebodies, spending their entire lives only a few thousand feet from where they were born (like your loser friends from high school). And they are a nemesis of mine. No matter how many times I’ve birded along the West Coast, I’ve never seen one. Yet, unlike condors, Wrentits aren’t rare. They are just super shy. They spend their days deep inside dense foliage and rarely come out, or at least they don’t come out for me. But this time my luck was going to change…or that’s what I kept telling myself.

Even before the trip began my luck went south. I planned to spend the first night at a remote lodge east of San Diego. But when I called the lodge, I was told there was no room at the inn. Grrrr. As I sat there grumbling, my wife announced, “I’ll find us a place.” That sounds like a good thing, it’s not. I know my wife. She’s a retired schoolteacher, but she thinks she’s a rock star. Ten minutes later we were booked into the legendary (and very pricey) Hotel Del Coronado, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Swell. (BTW: If our birdseed prices go up, blame my wife.) While she unpacked her swimsuit, I searched for a birding place near the resort, and found one…or so I thought.

Just a few miles from our hotel is the famous Cabrillo National Monument. Here, according to what I read, I should find Wrentits (plus Black Oystercatchers, Black Turnstones, Western Grebes and other West Coast birds). There was just one problem. When we arrived we were greeted by a sign saying, “The monument is closed due to the government shutdown.” (Remember that?) After mumbling a few choice words, we turned around and drove to another one of San Diego’s prime birding spots, the nearby Rosecrans National Cemetery. Cemeteries can be great places to look for birds. They are peaceful, have habitat diversity and no dog walkers, which means we don’t have to constantly watch where we step. And as long as we all stay respectful, none of the occupants seem to mind. This cemetery, which overlooks both the Pacific and San Diego Bay, is not only beautiful, but it can be a great migrant trap. I spent over an hour exploring the grounds, but on this day things were pretty dull. (I almost wrote “things were pretty dead” but somehow that didn’t feel right.) We then took a quick drive through San Diego’s famous Balboa Park, but it was Sunday and the place was packed with families (and dogs). We decided to call it quits, head back to the resort, sleep off the jet lag and start again tomorrow. After having breakfast, which cost roughly the same as a new car, we left the fancy resort and right away things got better. On our first stop we found Western Bluebirds, California Scrub-jays, Lark Sparrows and freaky birds called “Phainopelas.” (Yes, it’s a real bird. Look it up.) Most easterners would have been thrilled to see this assortment of birds, but none of them were the bird this easterner was hoping for. I continued driving, pulling over anytime I saw Wrentit habitat (or at least my idea of Wrentit habitat). At each stop I would hop out and make a few squeaking sounds to attract the birds (or at least sounds I thought would attract the birds). At first my wife got out with me, but after she heard all the squeaks, she decided she didn’t want any part of it and stayed in the car.

After about an hour of slowly squeaking our way down the road, we arrived in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and the Sweatwater Trail. Right away I saw birds, lots of birds. The area was covered with juncos, White-crowned Sparrows and Oak Titmice. Yet, none of those birds were even slightly interested in my squeaking sounds…but one other bird was very interested. From deep inside a Manzanita bush, a few feet to my right, I could see a tiny pair of bright white eyes staring back at me. It was a Wrentit. Finally!

The bird was too well hidden for a photo, so I needed a witness. Where was my wife? Right, still in the car. So, looking like a guy fighting off an attack of killer bees, I frantically began waving my arms in the hope she would see me, and it worked. She hopped out, ran down the trail and was able to get a brief glimpse of the super-shy bird before it went farther into the bush and never came out again…but it didn’t matter. It was my nemesis no more.

I yapped about it all the way back to the car, but my wife wasn’t very impressed. I think she’d have been more interested if I really were attacked by killer bees…or maybe she’s too focused on the condors. Stay tuned.