Wednesday, December 26, 2018

PA Newlin Grist Mill: Hunting the Wren

“We'll hunt the wren,” says Robin to Bobbin,
“We'll hunt the wren,” says Richard to Robin,
“We'll hunt the wren,” says Jack of the land,
“We'll hunt the wren,” says everyone.
“Where oh where?” says Robin to Bobbin,
“Where oh where?” says Richard to Robin,
“Where oh where?” says Jack of the land,
“Where oh where?” says everyone.

For my first foray after breaking my leg back in October, I chose to visit Newlin Grist Mill in Chester County, PA, about an hour's drive from home. Today is December 26, Wren's Day, The Feast of St. Stephen, so of course I had to find someplace known for both the birds and some Celtic heritage.  It's time to walk some flat trails and Hunt for the Wren.

Just off the famous Baltimore Pike (Route 1) Newlin Mill is easy to find and enjoy.

Wren's Day is one of the many Celtic winter gathering days, celebrated by the Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, and Manx (Norse-English) in various forms that include parades of colorful straw men, evergreen rings, circle dances, wren-poles, and story telling. There a few different stories to explain the legend of Wren and why it is necessary to hunt the King of Birds, but my favorite is the fairy story from Isle of Man (Manx) which is known for the long song "Hunt the Wren" and the famous circle dance.  As I limped on to the old railroad bed - as flat a trail as I could ask for! - I was humming the song on my way to hunt for birds. 

Winter flocks of small birds scattered ahead of me on the old rail bed.

The Newlin family immigrated from Ireland to Penns Woods in 1682 and they would have been very familiar with this very old traditional dance-and-feast day on the day after Christmas.  Who knows, they may have celebrated it through the nine generations of Irish-American millers who ran this grand old mill on the the West Branch of the Chester River. There is plenty of evergreen to gather to make the rings and globes but I chose to investigate under every holly, cedar, and hemlock for an illusive Saw-Whet Owl but no such luck.  Instead, flocks of Chickadees, Titmice, and White-Throated Sparrows moved ahead of me along the old railroad bed scattering into the brush just as I raised my binoculars. Ah, the thrill of the hunt...

A mixture of White-Throated and Song Sparrows stirred up the underbrush.

Tufted Titmouse and his small gang taunted me from across the mill race.

By my first half mile of slow walking I had added several species to my hunting list: an immature Coopers Hawk (no doubt stalking the winter flock I was herding ahead of me), several Turkey Vultures overhead, Blue Jays, Chickadees, Song and White-Throated Sparrows, Kinglet, Sapsucker, Red-Tailed Hawk. But no Wren. I even spotted a Screech Owl in his Sycamore abode. But no Wren. 

Screech Owl sleeping snug in the faint sunshine.

I walked two trails which link the diverse wetlands and creek valley.  Just on these two paths I found spillways, a dam, mill races, mill ponds, and a diversion canal. The Concord Creek dam makes for a nice slow-moving river where I found Canada Geese. The old mill pond behind it is now filled in with sediment and plant material and is quite wide, making for a beautiful marshy wetland where I spotted a Northern Flicker flipping over matted leaves along the edge of an almost frozen puddle. But still no Wren. 

The plain beyond the creek was once a large mill pond.

Starting to feel the pinch of an overused ligament, I decided to turn back and follow the head race trail back to the mill. I tried to hide my slight limp from dog walkers but was walking extra slow just to be cautious. A nice lady asked me if I was okay and I told her I was out of the walking boot and hard cast by only a few weeks and she empathized completely, telling me the story of her one and only mountain bike adventure while on vacation in Wyoming two years ago. Listening to her recount injuries to both legs, surgery, and a year-long recovery reminded me how lucky I was only to break one leg and to be walking in 9 weeks. 

Mill dam just below a diversion canal that moved water into the head race.

Head race leading down to the mill and the return trail, an old road. 

According to the Welsh telling of the legend of Wren, the hunt must have three things: a trick, an absurdity, and a hostility. I was tricked several times into thinking I had finally discovered a Wren in the brush along the head race trail - first a twirling beech leaf then a very busy Song Sparrow who took on the flitting, darting behaviors of Wren. The absurdity came when I got as far as the spillway to the mill and discovered I had to walk backwards and sideways down the steep timber steps to keep from pulling my sore ligament any further. I was wishing for Ibuprofen about then. I wasn't looking forward to what kind of hostility I might encounter as I shuffled across the busy road to the mill. After exploring the old buildings, a beehive oven, and the mill I made my way back to the parking area, a little sad that I hadn't seen a Wren on Wren Day. But then I got yelled at - I mean really yelled at! The hostility!

The King of the Birds!
Less than fifty feet from the car, there he was  hollering at me to step aside so he could keep his place on the guardrail. Wren's tail bobbed up and down as he let out a furious rant. I was stuck on a narrow strip of grass between the road on a sharp, blind turn and trying to cross over to the parking area. All that stood between me and my Ibuprofen was Wren.  I gave the King his space as he worked a crack in the wood for insects. A full-bellied Carolina Wren is a happy Wren. The hostility passed and I was able to complete my first mile-long hike since October. Boy, it felt great to walk a trail on this Wren's Day - even if Wren really made me work for the hunt and I won't be able to join in a game of Cammag afterwards. 


Newlin Grist Mill has almost eight mills of trails, though I only did one mile using the flat railroad bed and the flat road along the head race. A great variety of habitats for birding! 

Isle of Man celebrations on "Wren Day"

"Hunt the Wren" long song: