Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: sparrows

Return of the Chipping Sparrows

The return of the chipping sparrows is the first real sign that autumn is coming to central Texas. We know it’s here, has been for a month, and the occasional flirtatious cold front suggests that winter might make an appearance, but the chipping sparrows come about the time the leaves begin to fall from the cedar elm out back.

They’ll be regulars at the feeder the next few months, poking for the small seeds the white-winged doves and house sparrows aren’t interested in. They’re less skittish than those two year-round species as well. When I open the back door, the house sparrows and doves fly off immediately, but the chippers stay put as if to say, “Dude, what’s the deal? That’s the ape that brings the food.”

Through the winter I’ll usually see a dozen or so in the mornings and evenings, but come late March just before they fly north, I’ll see massive flocks in the backyard. Seventy or more birds poking around in the grass and to a colorblind guy like me who has trouble seeing brown birds in green grass, it seems the very lawn is writhing and wiggling awake after the winter. Then, one day, they will be gone and summer will be just around the corner.

I started my Project FeederWatch counts last weekend. Here’s who showed up for the first count. Mostly, the usual suspects:

  1. Chipping Sparrow: 4
  2. Black-crested Titmouse: 3
  3. Carolina Wren: 1
  4. Carolina Chickadee: 1
  5. House Sparrow: 8
  6. Blue Jay: 2
  7. White-winged Dove: 17

The only no-show was the Bewick’s wren, which I see pretty regularly, though I didn’t see one on my official count day.

Birding Central Park

We spent a few days in New York City last weekend and early this week, and I spent Monday exploring and birding Central Park. I’d read that the park is a major stopover point for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway and since this is migration season, I figured it would make for a good day.

A guidebook in the hotel suggested that The Ramble would be a good place for birding since it’s the wildest corner of Central Park, featuring landscapes similar to what might have existed in Manhattan before Europeans came. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the area certainly was wilder than the rest of the park and to my surprise the birds most common in the rest of the city—pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows—were virtually absent in The Ramble.

The weather was beautiful, a cool and crisp autumn day, of the kind I especially love and haven’t seen since leaving Rhode Island 22 years ago. I’ve been back up to the northeast several times since then, but never in the fall. Unfortunately, the leaves were only just starting to change, but some of the trees had come into their fall reds, oranges and yellows and after all these years in Texas, that was a real treat.

We were staying in Midtown so I came up Park and entered the park at 59th, bought a map and headed toward The Ramble to lose myself. I’ve been in Central Park before, but this was the first time I’ve been able to spend time slowly exploring it, and discovering for myself what a treasure it is.

Once I got to The Ramble, I immediately noticed that the pigeons were gone. You can hurry through those looping and winding trails and probably not see much more than the ubiquitous gray squirrels, but when you stop for a few minutes, quiet and patient, the ground comes alive with white-throated sparrows digging in the leaf litter or jumping onto weed stalks to shake some seed loose as they ride the stalks to the ground. At first, I saw only the occasional weed dipping and then popping back up, but on closer inspection, I realized that it was the sparrows doing this.

White-throated Sparrow

It wasn’t long before I forgot the city all around me; I suppose that’s part of the point of Central Park, creating an illusion of wilderness and a connection with nature that I think would seem pretty dear to me if I lived in a place like New York. Occasionally I would notice the tops of the big apartment buildings of the Upper West Side and feel almost surprised by the sight… oh, yeah, that’s there. I’m in the middle of this giant city.

American Robin

I saw several birds that were new to me: hermit thrush, white-throated sparrow, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, black-capped chickadee, and (I think) rusty blackbird. I also saw a couple of species I have only seen once or twice before:  dark-eyed junco and white-breasted nuthatch. I spent a lot of time focusing on and trying to watch these new birds that are rarely, if ever, seen in Texas.

Hermit Thrush

At one point, I heard what I think was a red-shouldered hawk. The gray squirrels bolted for the trees and the birds froze when the hawk flew over. The hawk’s voice was similar to what I’m used to hearing from the red-shoulders down here, but there was a slight difference in accent. I only got a quick glimpse through the trees as he soared overhead, but size and shape were about right for a red-shoulder.

Northern Cardinal

Coming out of The Ramble, I came to a meadow filled with dark-eyed juncos. I watched them for a while, trying not to appear too interested in the scene in the middle of the meadow where a guy on his knees was clearly proposing to a woman. It was a beautiful scene with the light slanting through the trees and golden leaves drifting down all around them. I wanted to try for some shots of the juncos, but the couple would have been in the background, and I didn’t want to appear to intrude on their moment, so silently wishing them all happiness, I moved on.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

After The Ramble, I headed back toward the east side again to go to the Guggenheim Museum, one of the New York things I’d never done in all the times I’ve been up there and so I left the park at 90th and went to the museum. It was interesting, but my heart wasn’t in it. I walked quickly through the exhibits, stopping to study a few of the pieces here and there, but after a morning among changing trees, migrating birds, and foraging squirrels, the art in the museum seemed somehow empty to me and so I left the museum and headed back to the park. Perhaps I’ll give it a closer look if I ever find myself up there on an inside kind of day.

I walked around the reservoir back toward the west side. I considered, briefly, walking all the way to the northern end of the park, but I was starting to get tired and the hike back to Midtown already seemed like it would be long enough so I saved that part of the park as something to look forward to for next time.

After a tasty dog at a Shake Shack on the Upper West Side, I headed back for The Ramble, quickly losing myself in its meandering trails. This is where I found the golden-crowned kinglet and a blackbird that I think is a rusty. I got this picture and some good looks, long enough to tell he wasn’t a red-wing or a grackle. I’ve heard rusties are getting scarce, and I hoped that that wasn’t why he was alone.

Common Grackle or perhaps a Rusty Blackbird?

Eventually, it was time to go and so I left The Ramble and walked through The Mall and out of the park at Fifth and 59th back into the bustle of Midtown where I saw the damndest thing: a line of people waiting to get into Abercrombie & Fitch, which really surprised me since I can’t imagine waiting in line to get into a store that has a website especially when something as magnificent and lovely as Central Park is only a couple of blocks away and the day was so autumn perfect.

Here’s my list with stars by the ones that were lifers for me:

  1. Winter wren *
  2. White-throated sparrow *
  3. Red-shouldered hawk
  4. American crow
  5. European Starling
  6. Rock dove (pigeon)
  7. House sparrow
  8. Downy woodpecker
  9. Black-capped chickadee *
  10. Tufted titmouse
  11. Mallard
  12. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  13. Hermit thrush *
  14. Blue jay
  15. American robin
  16. White-breasted nuthatch
  17. Golden-crowned kinglet *
  18. Red-bellied woodpecker
  19. Canada goose
  20. Northern cardinal
  21. Mourning dove
  22. Common grackle or perhaps a Rusty (?) blackbird *

Here’s a link to a .pdf checklist of the Birds of Central Park.

Project FeederWatch – Month 1

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

I learned so much about my backyard and its avian visitors last year that I decided to participate in Project FeederWatch again. Plus, it’s good to be a part of this citizen science project sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Unlike last year, I won’t be posting my weekly counts here. Instead, I’ll do updates monthly or so.

I started counting for this feeder watch season on the weekend of November 14th. Most of the usual suspects have checked in, though I haven’t seen any Northern Cardinals or Mourning Doves yet.

American Goldfinch hasn’t stopped by either, though they didn’t show until January last time. The Lesser Goldfinches have grown scarce since I moved the feeder. I guess they don’t approve of the new location, so I’ll probably move it back.

The Chipping Sparrows returned for the winter, right on schedule in early November, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Orange-crowned warbler, the other winter residents, are enjoying the suet feeders.

An accipiter, probably Sharp-shinned Hawk, swooped through the yard too, but not on a count day. I haven’t seen a hawk in the yard since March so I’m assuming it’s one of the migratory sharpies.

Here’s the tally after one month with highest counts in parentheses:

  1. White-winged Dove (23)
  2. Blue Jay (3)
  3. Carolina Chickadee (1)
  4. Black-crested Titmouse (2)
  5. Carolina Wren (2)
  6. Bewick’s Wren (1)
  7. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  8. Northern Mockingbird (1)
  9. Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  10. Chipping Sparrow (6)
  11. Lesser Goldfinch (4)
  12. House Sparrow (12)
Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Project FeederWatch Week 9

This was another good weekend of feeder watching. The titmice thought so too, especially since they finally noticed the pinecone feeder.

Black-crested Titmouse on the pinecone feeder

Black-crested Titmouse on the pinecone feeder

I’ve been trying for a couple of years to attract American Goldfinches to the yard. They’re only here in winter and I’ve seen them along the trail by the creek, but never in the yard. I’ve moved my nyjer feeder from place to place with no luck until this weekend when a lone American Goldfinch graced my yard, though he preferred the regular tube feeder over the nyjer feeder. He showed up on both count days so I’m hoping he’ll tell his friends and come back. Hopefully, I’ll get a picture.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrows showed up in record numbers for the year. I counted 19 at one point. I know that in late March and early April they’ll flock up and I’ll see 60 or 70 at a time in the weeks before they head north, but 19 is more than I expected at this point.

A Northern Mockingbird eyes the suet feeder

A Northern Mockingbird eyes the suet feeder

The suet feeder continues to be one of the most interesting feeders in terms of what it draws. Last summer it was dominated by Blue Jays and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker, but those don’t seem interested anymore, happily surrendering it to the mocker and the smaller birds.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet considers the suet feeder

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet considers the suet feeder

The Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet also returned, which was expected since I had seen them most days since my last count. The above shot of the kinglet was taken through a dirty window, but I was surprised to have gotten anything considering how jumpy they are.

And, now, the official count for Week 9, which is probably my highest count at least in terms of number of species:

  • Northern Cardinal (1)
  • Chipping Sparrow (19)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  • Black-crested Titmouse (2)
  • Carolina Chickadee (2)
  • Bewick’s Wren (2)
  • Carolina Wren (1)
  • American Goldfinch (1)
  • White-winged Dove (7)
  • Northern Mockingbird (1)
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
  • House Sparrow (4)
  • Mourning Dove (3)
  • Blue Jay (2)

Also, if you’re in Austin (or just interested), check out Mikael’s list of the 20 most common year-round resident backyard birds in the north Austin area.

Project FeederWatch Week 3

Week 3 of Project FeederWatch was cool and overcast with occasional showers. It was a good weekend for staying in and staring out the windows.

A Black-crested Titmouse eyes the suet feeder

A Black-crested Titmouse eyes the suet feeder

The birds and the numbers:

  • House Finch (1)
  • House Sparrow (10)
  • Blue Jay (2)
  • Bewick’s Wren (1)
  • Carolina Wren (2)
  • White-winged Dove (17)
  • Black-crested Titmouse (1)
  • Chipping Sparrow (3)
  • Carolina Chickadee (1)

I didn’t see our cardinal this weekend, but all the others have made appearances in my previous counts.

What’s really interesting to me is how the birds’ behavior has changed slightly since the summer. The Blue Jays, for instance, are no longer interested in the suet feeder. They hogged it all summer and now they’ve all but surrendered it to the wrens and chickadees.

A Blue Jay watches the feeders

A Blue Jay watches the feeders

They have not lost their taste for peanuts, though, and they swoop in, grab a nut and are gone before I know it.

Unless this guy is in the way…

I’m pretty sure there were more Chipping Sparrows, but they like to poke around behind the sage bush.

The 3 Chipping Sparrows I counted

The 3 Chipping Sparrows I counted

Bewick’s Wrens come each summer to nest in our boxes, but this time of year, I see more of their larger cousins, the Carolina Wrens.

A Carolina Wren on the worm feeder

A Carolina Wren on the worm feeder

Great Backyard Bird Count – Day 4

Yesterday, I decided to count birds at the small lake at the end of the trail that runs through our neighborhood. I ride my bike along there all the time, but I’ve never walked around and really tried to check out the birds.

When I arrived, I was greeted by a chickadee who immediately hopped into a tree that seemed filled with singing birds. I listened for a few minutes and then headed down to the water to see what birds were hanging around. In the summer, it’s mostly egrets and herons, but yesterday it was filled with birds wintering over.

I ate my sandwich at a bench on the lakefront where I was joined by a couple of coots who eyed me suspiciously. What really surprised me were the fishing buoys hanging in all the trees. Careless casters had decorated the trees as for an angler’s Christmas.

After lunch, I walked along the lake, which was filled with ring-billed gulls and more American coots. I easily forget that some gulls like lakes and so I’m always pleasantly surprised to see them floating on an inland lake. A few soared overhead, the sun shining behind their wings in a way that made them glow brilliant against the crisp blue sky. Gulls have always been favorites of mine, despite that incident back in ’90.

Other ducks bobbed along the far shore, but even with binoculars, I couldn’t make out what kind of ducks they were. Probably northern shovelers or mallards, but too far to tell for sure.

I did get a good look at a new bird for my life list, the double-crested cormorant. They bobbed along beyond the gulls, looking down their sharp-looking beaks at the world. The only picture I got was this, very blurry, of one flying by.

Double-crested Cormorant

After the lake, I walked back up to the woods and wandered among the cedar and oak. In a clearing I found a labyrinth trail and walked through it, winding toward the center and back out again. Along the way, I caught a glimpse of another blue jay.

Before returning to the car, I saw a small flock of chipping sparrows and even got a shot of this guy:

Chipping Sparrow

My favorite, though, was this shot of a black-crested titmouse, seed in mouth:

Black-crested Titmouse

I love watching these little guys hop around in my backyard. I think it’s those huge black eyes or maybe that pointy head, but somehow, the black-crested titmouse has become my favorite backyard bird.

And, speaking of backyards, here are my official numbers for Day 4 of The Great Backyard Bird Count:

  • 2 Northern shovelers
  • 4 Double-crested cormorants
  • 15 American coots
  • 19 Ring-billed gulls
  • 1 Blue jay
  • 1 Carolina Chickadee
  • 1 Black-crested titmouse
  • 1 Bewick’s wren
  • 6 Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrow

The chipping sparrows came back a few weeks ago when it first started to feel like fall. This guy let me get pretty close. He looks a bit different from the ones I shot last spring, but those were in their breeding plummage.

They left back in March about a week after I first started paying attention so I’ve been waiting to see when they would show back up. I’m glad they found us again.

I just wish I could white balance a little more consistently.

House Sparrow

Along with White-winged Doves and Blue Jays, House Sparrows are the most common birds in our back yard.

I’ve been trying to get a good shot of one for a few weeks and so far this is the best one. The trick was moving the cake feeder that they like closer to the porch.

Some interesting facts about the House Sparrow via Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site:

  • The House Sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Its spread throughout the West was aided by additional introductions in San Francisco, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • The House Sparrow has been present in North America long enough for evolution to have influenced their morphology. Populations in the north are larger than those in the south, as is generally true for native species (a relationship known as Bergman’s Rule).
  • Although not a water bird, the House Sparrow can swim if it needs to, such as to escape a predator. Sparrows caught in a trap over a water dish tried to escape by diving into the water and swimming underwater from one part of the trap to another.
  • The House Sparrow is a frequent dust bather. It throws soil and dust over its body feathers, just as if it were bathing with water.

They have a rep for being a nuisance bird, taking over the nests of other birds, especially the Eastern Bluebird, which may be why nobody has moved into my bluebird box, although the sparrows don’t seem interested in it either.

Chipping Sparrows

I see these little guys all the time, crowding around the spilled seed beneath the feeder. I have a tendency to name any small brown bird a sparrow so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that these guys really are sparrows, chipping sparrows to be precise.

According to my bird book, chipping sparrows are nicknamed “hairbirds” because they use hair in their nests that they steal from unsuspecting horses and sometimes napping dogs. Perhaps – gasp! – even lazy greyhounds.

Apparently, they are also one of the signs of spring in northern climes where they replace the American tree sparrows that move up to the Arctic to breed.

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