Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sparrows in Flight

 [Birders familiar with Cape May, NJ know we're at the Beanery  here, with the winery building in the background. Vince Elia and I had been hunting sparrows, including Vesper Sparrow, all morning, independently, and finally scored when we we worked the pumpkin fields together. Here's how to break this i.d. down: it's flying above the vegetation, which rules out Song, Swamp, all Ammodramus. . . really, if a bird known to be a sparrow flies this high, it's a Savannah, a Chipping, or, a Vesper. . .almost always works. Okay, we could see the white outer tail feathers with bins, but the eyering is courtesy of a frozen camera image, and when you're sifting a lot of sparrows, it helps to start with habitat and what they're doing.]

I've been going through some serious bird withdrawal lately, e.g. only got a half-day hit this entire week and thus even while sitting cozy in the afternoon with a beer and barbecued pig and beef brisket on my plate, it was the flickers flying over Cape May Point that generated the saliva during the first (hopefully annual) "Pig Sit" . . .

But at least my weekly hit was at the Beanery, and it being the second day of a very birdy weekend, pre-pig-sit birding was extraordinary. At one point I turned and said to my companions, Vince, Louise, and Beth, "This is a damn fine day of birding."

And it was. We were in birds constantly. What do you want to look at? Hawks overhead - like that late Broad-winged? or low Red-shouldered? or young Bald Eagle pestering its parent for food? Or how about late warblers - like a dozen or more Blackpolls on porcelain berry, which is invasive and hated 11 months a year, but come October hold birds better than native fruit? The Beanery yielded 72 bird species - Eastern Meadowlarks, Black-throated Blue Warbler, both cuckoos, first of season Fox Sparrow, Eastern Bluebirds, American Pipit. . . like I said, constant action. For four hours.

But I was there for sparrows. Right at the gate, waves moved past at sun-up, with a Lincoln's among them. We fished out a bunch more, and also netted all the expected woodpeckers (including Red-headed and Sapsucker).

Sparrows are a pain: a pain to see, a pain to i.d., and especially a pain to photograph. This is a good time for Grasshopper Sparrow, and a number were detected today around Cape May: Bob Fogg had one in Del Haven, several people reported them at Higbee, and I had one at the Beanery, but damned if I could get a shot of it.

At some point I decided, perhaps masochistically, to shoot some of the many sparrows in flight. Ridiculous. I.d. 'em with their flight call when you can, and sling pixels.

 [Flying below height of cover, long tail (and pumping it): Song Sparrow. 150 + seen at the Beanery today.]

[Flying below height of cover, shorter tail pumped less often, lots of rufous: Swamp Sparrow. 100 + seen at the Beanery today. Often in the company of Song Sparrows. Waves of dark sparrows getting up in front of you in rank fields are these species; add White-throated Sparrow to the candidates if you are in or near woods, since whitethroat is the woodland sparrow.] 

[Vince pointed out how the buff tips on the outer greater coverts of this Eastern Phoebe were brighter than on the inner ones. This is because, though those tips start the same color on juvenile Phoebes, the inner coverts are more exposed to sunlight than the outers much of the time, so the inner coverts fade from sun and weather.  Remember "outer - under" on a bird's wing, meaning the outer feathers lie beneath the inner ones on a folded wing. Same is true on the tail - "outer - under." That's a Field Sparrow in the rear. Field's, like all genus Spizella, are small, and you really notice that when they flush, as they stand out from the larger Songs, White-throats, etc. This was a Field Sparrow day, too, we saw maybe a couple dozen.]

[Agonize though we will about invasive Porcelain Berry, it's probably why Blackpoll Warblers and other warblers are lingering later in fall.]


  1. That berry-laden Blackpoll shot is great. Keep em coming!

  2. Great Stuff! Love the shots; we are getting ready for the sparrows down here in Miami. Seen Lark, Clay-colored and Savannah so far! A report of Say’s Phoebe in ENP was a surprise but not really with the fall we have had this year. We are expecting a stellar winter season. Drought index for points west of us is severe which should bring food levels to an all time low, H2O is scarce sparking fires across the landscape and other unknown factors may shoot lots of western vagrants into the east this year. Let’s not mention the waterfowl we may see. Greater White-fronted Goose in southern Miami-Dade County (~ 15 miles from the Everglades) was surely unexpected last week!

    We will wait and see. Looks like Ebird covered some of this in the Ash-throated story.

    Take care and stay warm,
    Nature is Awesome
    Angel & Mariel

  3. @ Steve, Mariel and Angel, thanks! Cool about the FL sparrows, it will be interesting to see what this system (hammering at my house right now) brings us, and you!