Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sparrows in Tyler

The weather started to warm around here, yay! It was snowing in Peterborough when I talked with Paul last night, but down here in Pennsylvania we have been having spring-like weather. And with such weather comes easier excursions to go birding.

On Monday I headed over to Tyler Arboretum, because it is my "go to" place when I have a free hour or two and want to be in nature. This time I decided to venture further out into the more wildernessy trails, so I picked a trail that was by a stream so I could also enjoy the frogs calling. And boy, my god, were they calling in a deafening chorus that sounded like truck traffic. But those aren’t technically considered birds.

With the warmer weather comes more birds, but for the main part of the arboretum (the one I had to walk through to get to the trail) that just mean more titmice, nuthatches, finches, red-winged blackbirds, and chickadees. It also means lots of little flower starting to come up and carpet the fields and even an occasional mallard on the little pond. None of those birds mattered to me on this trip (I’ve seen them all most of my visits, and I visit Tyler all the time), but I checked the feeders anyway.

The trails in Tyler are extensive, and I only took a small route of one which, because of it being by a stream as well as other less clear reasons, had a lot of edge habitat to it. That is fine since there are many edge species to see, but most of those tend to be the ones you see in suburbs so I wasn’t holding out hope to see anything unusual. I tried to follow the distant sound of a woodpecker, but mostly it was a quiet walk.

Then I saw a red-tailed hawk. Red tails aren’t very interesting in terms of stories about there sightings, but see it drew my attention to a large and thick undergrowth of shrubs and tangles underneath it that had lots of chattering going on. The chattering didn’t seem to be directed at the hawk (who soon flew away), so I went over to investigate while hoping it wasn’t just damn house sparrows.

But there aren’t many house sparrows around here at all, and these were definitely sparrows. Native sparrows! Yay! Crappy binoculars! Boo! I stood and watched them for about 10 minutes until I finally could get a good enough view for an identification: Chipping Sparrow!

Cool. I went further up the trail and then doubled back to another part of the trail that went around behind the thicket in which I saw the sparrows. While walking by the thicket I heard loud rustling and stopped waiting to see if it was a fox or something. Nope, just the sound of dozens and dozens of sparrows hopping and moving around a thick undergrowth. A thick undergrowth that makes it hard to see the sparrows well enough to identify. But I am nothing if not determined, so I stopped there and just watched for awhile until I could get some good identifying marks.

White-Throated Sparrow! Good, another native, but one I already had. Oh, there is another one that is different, is it…yes, it is an American Tree Sparrow! Wow, that huge thicket had three different native sparrows in it. What is funny is that it had the Chipping Sparrow AND the American Tree Sparrow, which has the nickname of “the winter chippy.”

Whoah, wait! If the tree sparrow is the “winter chippy”, doesn’t that mean that the chippy shouldn’t be here now? Crap, I know I saw one (I can identify chippies, no problem), but maybe I was just….wrong? Do they occur around here now? Time to ask eBird!

Map via eBirds
Oh, there are some around here now, but not that many. I must have seen one of the first few chipping sparrows that has shown up around here. Wow, I am on the vanguard of chipping sparrow sightings! Valuable information.

Ok, no one has posted seeing one in Tyler arboretum, so let’s see where some of these sightings are.

Map via eBirds
Holy crap, I KNOW THIS PERSON! Ian Stewart and I go way back to when I was a graduate student and he was a post-doc in the same lab. And let me tell you, Ian is a real birder; not only does he have a PhD in ornithology, but he knows his shit and has taken trips to places around the world just to go birding. In fact, the reason why I know that the tree sparrow is called the “winter chippy” is because Ian told it to me. Wow, so I am amongst distinguished company in sighting a bird!

So, yeah, it was an early sighting of chipping sparrows; nothing groundbreaking, but interesting still. Does that mean that there shouldn’t have been tree sparrows around?

Map via eBirds
Nope, they are around too.

And so it is like such: for a brief, shining moment, we have the possibilities of both winter and regular chippies being around, not just at the same time, but in the same thick underbrush. Perhaps they were flocking together, swapping stories of life and contrasting their lifestyle like two timeshare owners who got their schedules messed up? Was there awkwardness in their meeting? I think that is why they needed the mediation of the white-throated sparrows.

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