Friday, October 9, 2009

Sparrow Stravaganza

I confess to having favorites among the birds I see regularly – I love ducks, woodpeckers, and raptors above all others. As I was telling K this morning, I find the sleek, colorful plumage of the ducks and woodpeckers irresistible. Of course, all birds have beautiful plumage, but somehow the ducks and woodpeckers seem especially lovely. The relatively large size of most ducks allows for lots of color (Wood Ducks! Pintails!), and the flashy behavior of most of our woodpeckers gives us a chance to see the wing linings and wing patterns that are unobserved in many other birds.

So, in my admiration for my favorites, I confess to giving short shrift to whole families of birds, especially those that pose identification challenges, such as gulls, sandpipers, and sparrows.

Sparrows! More than a dozen species of sparrows may be found in Connecticut, and some from outside our region may be seen during migration. Though I am familiar with the sparrows that visit our feeders (Song, Chipping, White-Throated, Fox, Tree), and a few others I see while out and about (Savannah, Swamp), I really don’t know the other sparrows and haven’t put much effort into looking for them or trying to learn them at sight. Perhaps it’s my poor eyesight (again, remember that I love big bold ducks and flashy woodpeckers) and the fact that I’ve never really had the good binoculars I’ve needed until quite recently.

Well, as of today I have a new appreciation for these little birds. This morning I took a v-e-r-y slow trip through the big meadow in the center of town, off the main road. The fields have been partially mowed and some have been plowed already; the resulting acres of corn stubble, uncut corn, weedy and shrubby edges, and plowed soil attract a great variety of birds. Before I entered the area, I paused and scanned the fields with the binoculars; I could see many dozens of birds feeding and fluttering, rising for short flights and dropping down again a few feet further on. Gold mine!

As happens too often, my planned “quick trip” extends to a half hour or more as the birds hold me fascinated. Today was Sparrow Stravaganza: I lost count of the Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Chipping Sparrows., and I was very lucky to spot at least a dozen Lincoln's Sparrows and a few Swamp Sparrows, and several Grasshopper Sparrows, a new life bird for me.

Among the other avian treats were a half dozen female Bobolinks, their warm gold color really beautiful in the goldy-green corn. When their black and white mates are present, it’s too easy to overlook the pretty females. They were kind enough to perch for several minutes on some remaining stalks so I could observe at leisure. When they flew, I could see their spiky tails, which help differentiate them from similar-looking sparrows.

Palm Warblers were all over the place! These little birds with yellow belly and chestnut cap breed in Canada and the northernmost parts of New England, favoring bogs and muskeg areas. Observing them foraging on the ground in this muddy Connecticut field, I was amazed to think how far they’d traveled and how far they still had to go before they reached their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Caribbean areas.

Yellow-rumped Warblers were also numerous here, flitting between ground, grasses, and the small trees along the edge of the road. Despite the lateness of the season, many birds were singing, including the Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Catbird and Mockingbird, and the Chickadees and Titmice. It has to do with the length of day and quality of light, which at this time of year is similar to spring.

So, I enjoyed seeing all these sparrows and working to identify them. It paid off with a few rarities and a new life bird. Still, it would have been exciting to see a Sharp-Shinned Hawk swoop in…

Forgot to mention a few good birds from yesterday’s trip: Rufous-Sided Towhee, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Bluebirds, Scarlet Tanager, Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron eating a great big fish, Hooded Merganser, and an American Kestrel.


  1. Did you know that the Scarlet Tanager's song was written into Dvorak's "American" String Quartet?

  2. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for your comment! Yes, I did know that fun fact; in fact, I worked it into a program note I wrote for a performance of that music at UCONN's Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts a few years ago. Here's what I wrote:

    During his Spillville [Iowa] vacation, Dvorak relished daily walks through the wooded hills, where, day after day, he heard the song of a bird he described as "red, only with black wings." This was certainly the Scarlet Tanager (native also to Connecticut), whose song is a ringing, rapid, throaty warble. Frustrated by this insistent intrusion into his compositional musings, Dvorak finally relented, incorporating the bird's song in the first violin part. (At the bottom of the score Dvorak scrawled, "That damned bird!")


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.