February is the cruelest month.
Although the evening shadows lengthen slowly over field and wood,
the biting winter winds still hold sway,
tossing the long brittle grasses,
while small sparrows ride the stems,
resigned to the cold,
looking forward to spring.
Once upon a time, friends and I would go to Duke Gardens every February to walk in the greenhouses and feast on the riotous color of spring flowers; a treat for our winter-weary eyes. We did it for years. Then Doris Duke died, we all scattered to the winds and the annual pilgrimage fell by the wayside. So when I heard that NJ Audubon was making arrangements for an optional grassland birding training session at Duke Farms, I jumped at the chance.
As we milled about in the cool gray morning, waiting for everyone to arrive, birds called from the trees and shrubs. Chimney Swifts fluttered over head, a flock of Cedar Waxwings lifted to settle in another tree, a Song Sparrow belted out his song and off in the distance the call of an Indigo Bunting lifted skyward. The assembled birders chatted about the World Series the week before, the birds they were hearing and seeing, Nightjars or the lack thereof, their grassland survey routes and the wonder of Duke Farms and its huge amount of grassland in the midst of suburban NJ.
Once we got to the fields in the western portion of the estate, the first thing we heard was the buzzing of a Grasshopper Sparrow; followed soon after by the bubbling song of Bobolinks. Lots and lots of Bobolinks. Like everywhere you look Bobolinks. I just love them! We were also treated with an immature Orchard Oriole, lots of Indigo Bunting and big open sky. Part of the joy of grassland birding for me is being out in big sky country.
Here’s the list of what we saw, probably not complete and done from memory: Cooper’s Hawk dashing past with a yellow warbler in its clutches; Red-tailed Hawk; Am. Kestrel; Chimney Swift; Purple Martin; Barn Swallow; Tree Swallow; N. Rough-winged Swallow; E. Bluebird; Catbird; N. Mockingbird; Cedar Waxwing; House Wren; E. Meadowlark; Red-winged Blackbird; Bobolink; Orchard Oriole; Indigo Bunting; Grasshopper Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow.
Commonly called LBJs or Little Brown Jobs, sparrows are notoriously hard to identify. This one is a Savannah Sparrow. Can you see the little bit of yellow by the eye? Classic.
I am fond of sparrows. They are ubiquitous yet overlooked in favor of the brighter, more colorful, more easily identified birds. Many of them have beautiful easy-to-learn songs, like the ol’ sam peabody of the white-throated sparrow or the ping-pong balls of the field sparrow or the distinctive maids, maids, maids, of the song sparrow. I always try to spend time with sparrows.
Let me tell you a sparrow story. I was with my sister at Point Reyes National Seashore in California at the end of September for our birthdays. This was a few years ago. It was cold and windy out on the point. I was standing in a field birding every bird looking for a golden-crowned sparrow, a life bird for me. There were hundreds of sparrows, popping up and down, mostly white-crowned. My sister is a good birder but after way-too-many LBJs, she wandered off to look at a Say’s Phoebe and to ogle the California Quail. Finally a golden-crowned sat on the top branch of a bush, I shouted for her to come see it, but she was on a Black-throated Gray Warbler, also a life bird for me. I abandoned extolling the virtues of the sparrow and dashed over for the warbler. Totally fickle right? Thankfully I have seen many golden-crowned sparrows and savannah sparrows after that in California and Alaska but I have only ever seen the black-throated gray warbler just that once.
Thanks Gale for being bored of LBJs.
But if we hadn’t have been hours in that field sorting out sparrows, we would never have seen the black-throated gray. The morale of the story is–Spend time with sparrows, you never know who is hanging out with them.
Filed under Photos, Travel