Sparrow Quest

The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones -- so pretty.
The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones — so pretty.

Late one evening a few days ago, realizing that I had a completely open schedule the next day, I decided I’d head out in the morning to Orion Oaks County Park to try to find some sparrows. In addition to lots of wooded trails, this park has a huge open meadow that always has lots of sparrows singing in the tall grasses. I’ve been frustrated by sparrows in the past, having trouble telling them apart by sight or by sound. So you’d think I would have listened to some songs of the likely species before I got out in the meadow, right? Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. So, as poorly prepared as I was, it’s not surprising that I got frustrated again.

Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him
Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him

Sure, I heard plenty of birds singing. But the only ones I could identify were the Chipping, Field, and Grasshopper Sparrows. I could have used my Audubon app to listen to some songs while I was out there, but it’s so hard to see the menus on the screen in the sunlight that I didn’t even try. I’m going to spend some time doing the song quizzes on Larkwire before my next outing, and hopefully I’ll start making some progress toward mastering the sparrows. If you’ve never tried to find sparrows (other than the abundant House Sparrows at the fast food drive through), you might not appreciate how hard they can be to see. They have this maddening habit of singing while they’re hidden in the tall meadow grasses, only popping up briefly and usually too far away to see well. And even when you do see them, they all look like, well, “little brown jobs” (birders even refer to them as LBJs). Until you begin to learn the differences in body shape and size, and habitats, and songs, that is. Only then can you start to make sense of them all in the field. It’s a challenge that I considered not even bothering with two years ago, but as I slowly learn more and more birds I find that it’s not as daunting to add some of the harder ones to my knowledge base. I’m still not ready to tackle gulls though…talk about difficult birds!

Despite my lack of sparrow success, I had a very nice afternoon with lots of other interesting sightings. There were butterflies:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

And dragonflies:

The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!
The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!

And deer:

Young buck deer watching me watching him
Young buck deer watching me watching him

And this mama turkey with her six little poults (you can only see four of them here I think):

Wild Turkey and six poults (1024x683)

I just loved how the meadow looked with the vast expanse of purple and yellow. I tried to get some photos of a Mourning Dove on the grass with the flowers in the background, but the bird didn’t want to cooperate for that one.

Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch
Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch

And let’s not forget the curious Grasshopper Sparrow either. I really love the little bits of yellow above the eyes and on the leading edge of the wing (you can barely see that part in this photo).

Grasshopper Sparrow to edit v4
Grasshopper Sparrow

Massasauga rattlesnake sign (533x800)The other birds I saw that day included Tree Swallows, Cooper’s Hawk, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbird, and a few more. And even a little garter snake that scared the bejeebers out of me when he slithered across the path in front of me. I’m always a bit on edge in that park because of all the signs warning about the Massasauga Rattlesnakes that breed there, so my brain was on high alert. I’d love to see one of those rattlesnakes, but just not too close up. Heck, I feel brave just walking past the warning signs!

Nature Lovers Are Some of the Best People

Last night I joined some new friends for an evening of watching Bald Eagles and Osprey at Stony Creek park.  Both species have nests with one nestling each right now, and the nests can be seen from the same spot, making it easy to keep an eye on any action at either one.

I’m going to show you a few pics, but I have to say that I didn’t get many great ones, despite using my biggest lens and tripod (400mm with 1.4 extender). I have a lot of difficulty getting my manual focus right with the big lens, so I’m often disappointed with the results, even after sharpening in Photoshop. I guess the conditions were challenging though, with the nests being so far away (200 yards), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my photographer self. The one below was by far my best photo of the evening, one of the adult osprey flying over us on the way back to the nest with some soft bedding material (at least that’s what we presume it would use the grasses for).

Osprey carrying bedding material to nest
Osprey carrying bedding material to nest © Kim C. Smith

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? At one point the Osprey flew over our heads from the nest, heading directly toward the Bald Eagle nest. We all held our breath as we watched, wondering if the adult eagles would come after him. I grabbed my camera off the tripod just in case there was going to be some drama, but nothing happened. The Osprey continued on to a nearby pond and came back a few minutes later with the grasses trailing from his talons. The Osprey nest is on a cell tower, a common place for large birds of prey to nest in urban areas. It’s always amazing to me that the birds use this particular nest location, because it’s directly adjacent to a busy shooting club with frequent gunshots ringing out. I get more annoyed by the gunshots than they do, apparently.

We were hoping to see the eaglet taking some practice flights, but she stayed firmly perched in the nest all evening, occasionally stretching her wings and giving us renewed hope for a practice flight. One of the parents was in the nest with her at the beginning of the evening, but later moved to a nearby tree to rest. The other parent was in another tree as well. Here’s an article about the eagle nest in a local paper if you’d like to read more about it.

Osprey on cell tower v2
Osprey on cell tower

Of course while we were all chatting during the evening, I was also keeping my eyes and ears open for other birds. We were beside a large pond and marsh, so naturally there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds around. I was happy to hear the near-constant songs of Marsh Wrens too, although I never managed to see one of them. Here’s the list of species I reported to eBird last night:

15 species +2 other taxa
duck sp.  1
Turkey Vulture  2
Osprey  3
Bald Eagle  3
Sandhill Crane  2
Empidonax sp.  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Marsh Wren  2     (heard them calling in response to each other)
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  1
Common Yellowthroat  1
Yellow Warbler  4
Indigo Bunting  1
Red-winged Blackbird  X
Baltimore Oriole  1
American Goldfinch  3

It’s unusual for me to go on a nature outing with other people who aren’t birders, so this was a nice change. For once I got to be the person who identified the birds before everyone else! I got to show people Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat, but most of the other small birds I saw while other people were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I had to keep telling myself that not everyone cares to know the identity of every single bird that flies by like I do. (I think I have OBD — obsessive birding disorder.)

Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane
Red-winged Blackbird harassing Sandhill Crane

One of the most interesting things was a Red-winged Blackbird harassing two Sandhill Cranes on the far side of the pond. At first we could barely see the cranes’ heads poking out of the vegetation, and could see the blackbirds dive-bombing them repeatedly. I imagine the cranes were too close to a nest. I’ve seen quite a few instances of Red-winged Blackbirds violently attacking other birds this spring; they’re extremely protective of their territories and won’t hesitate to buzz a curious human either.

Sandhill Crane with Blackbird on its butt (blurry, again)The cranes slowly worked their way down into the pond, emerging from the vegetation so we got beautiful full-body views of them in the evening sun. And as you can see in the picture here, one of the blackbirds wasn’t finished with guard duty. It was basically riding on the crane’s backside as he walked through the water. The blackbird would flutter up and come back down, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually pecking the crane. But then it just sat down and the crane didn’t seem to mind it hanging on like that. Such an odd behavior. It reminded me of birds that eat insects off of elephants or bison — a tiny bird on a larger animal.

Bald Eagle on bare branchAs the sun got closer to the horizon I started to get chilly, so left the remaining three people in our group and and headed back to my car. On the way back I looked back toward the eagle nest from another vantage point and spotted the other adult sitting on a branch out in the open. I think a Bald Eagle looks majestic no matter how blurry the photo….

I’m really glad I went on this outing despite not knowing anyone beforehand.  Everyone was so nice and it was very low-key, just a group of nature lovers sharing time together at the end of the day. The scenery was beautiful, everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation, and the birds were singing and flying all around.  We talked about bugs. We talked about wildflowers. We talked about photography. Now that’s my idea of a great night out!

Extreme Birding: One Tree Limit

I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:

View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk
View of the lake from my picnic table writing desk

It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.

Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)
Chipping Sparrow singing (click to enlarge)

Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.

I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Our tree for today's "Single Tree Birding" experiment, a pretty black locust
Our tree for today’s “Single Tree Birding” experiment, a pretty black locust

Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.

The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.

Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects
Eastern Kingbird, scouting for flying insects

At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.

I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”

Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree
Cottonwood seed puffs and some leaves from the locust tree

Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.

Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.

Turkey Vulture flyover
Turkey Vulture flyover

I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree.  As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.

A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?

Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.

I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.

Taking a break from eating to sing again
Taking a break from eating to sing again

Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)

Chipping Sparrow with leaf
Chipping Sparrow with green  caterpillar

So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.  This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)

And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.

The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.

Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂