Sparrow April

Dark Eyed Junco, Slate Colored Type, by tcd123usa on FlickrLast April was the coldest on record. Birds that should have left stayed, and those that had returned during the warmer March days endured.

At our bird feeding area, we hosted nine New World sparrow species. Migrants, winter visitors, and permanent residents by the dozen mingled on the ground, the back steps, and porch, eating birdseed as fast as I spread it. Eight species were the usual suspects; one was not.

We had had as many as 60 dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) at our feeders all winter. These white-breasted, dark gray birds of the Sparrow Family Emberizidae had been trilling their song for weeks. Usually they have migrated farther north in Pennsylvania and beyond by mid-April, but last year they stayed for the entire month.

So too did the several wintering white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), which were already singing their pensive “poor Sam Peabody” song, or, since large numbers of them breed in Canada, “Oh, sweet Canada” song. In fact, we heard one singing at the edge of First Field on May 22 during our first Important Bird Area (IBA) count!

Towhee singer, by Henry McLin on FlickrAt least one eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), also a member of the Sparrow Family Emberizidae, had spent the winter on the mountain for the first time, but he had chosen a thicket more than a mile from our home, so the male that appeared at the feeders was probably a migrant back from the southern United States.

We also had three wintering song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) that had been joined by several migrants during the cold spell in April. They too had been singing for several weeks, and their distinctive “Hip! Hip! Hurrah boys! Spring is here” song, along with the dark spot on their brown-streaked breasts, made them easy to identify.

Five fox sparrows (Passerella iliaca) had appeared in mid-March, but four had left for their nesting grounds in Canada by April. Still, one of those large, rusty-brown, rufous-tailed sparrows remained through the cold spell, and even sang his brilliant musical song after the Good Friday snow.

American Tree Sparrow, by ericbegin2000 on FlickrThen there were the usual three rusty-capped sparrow species. I heard the first singing American tree sparrow (Spizella arborea) on March 21, and most of those so-called “winter chippies” had left for their northern Canadian breeding grounds, but two still came regularly to the feeders in April.

Their look-alike congener, the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), first appeared on March 27. Although both the chipping and tree sparrows have rusty caps, only the American tree sparrow sports a dark spot on its breast. In addition, the chipping sparrow has a clean white line above its eye and a black line through it, while the tree sparrow has a gray line rimmed with rusty-brown. Then too the tree sparrow sings a sweet, high song, but the chipping sparrow rattles on a single buzzy note, sounding more like an insect than a songbird. field sparrow grooming 3The first field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) returned on March 26. It also has a rusty cap and a plain breast, but its bill is pink, and it has a white eye ring. Its lovely, descending trill is one of my favorite spring songs.

By then my husband Bruce was thoroughly confused. No matter how many times I tried to point out the differences between those “lbjs” or “little brown jobs,” as birders refer to most sparrow species, he could not confidently tell a field sparrow from a song sparrow or a chipping sparrow from a tree sparrow.

Imagine his disbelief then, on April 5, when I looked outside in late afternoon at the birds mobbing the feeders and the ground beneath them and noticed a different rusty-capped sparrow. Its cap was a deeper chestnut than that of a chipping sparrow. It had gray instead of white above its eye, a dim white patch below its throat and no spot in the middle of its blurry-streaked chest like a song sparrow. Its wings were a reddish-brown without the wing bars of chipping, field, and tree sparrows. A swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) had joined the sparrow throngs. Despite its rusty cap, though, it is most closely related to the song sparrow and Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), the latter of which is an uncommon migrant in Pennsylvania and does not breed in the state.

swamp sparrowHere on our dry mountaintop we had had only fleeting glimpses of the elusive swamp sparrow during migration, so I was pleased to have more than two weeks to closely observe what was probably a male swamp sparrow because of its richer chestnut crown and cap color and because male swamp sparrows migrate ahead of females. He did, however, shed his shy, retiring nature at the feeding area and was incredibly feisty as he competed for food.

Pennsylvania has two subspecies of swamp sparrows — the inland M. g. georgiana, which is most abundant in the freshwater marshes of the glaciated northwest, and the Coastal Plain swamp sparrow M. g. nigrescens of the lower Delaware River tidal marshes. But, as ornithologist E. H. Forbush once wrote, “Any watery, muddy, bushy, grassy place where rank marsh grasses, sedges and reeds grow — any such bog or slough where a man will need long rubber boots to get about — is good enough for Swamp Sparrows… But in migration they may appear almost anywhere, though seldom distinctly seen and recognized by ordinary observers, because of their retiring habits…”

First called “reed sparrow” by Pennsylvania naturalist William Bartram, it was bird artist Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant in Philadelphia, who, in 1811, named it “swamp sparrow.” It breeds in Canada south of the tree line from British Columbia to Newfoundland and in the United States east of the Rockies except for much of the cultivated prairies belt and south to Virginia. It can winter as far north as southern Ontario but mostly in the southern United States.

Although research done in the Erie National Wildlife Refuge by Russell Greenberg in 1985 and 1986 found that the later arriving swamp sparrows, which are smaller and socially subordinate to song sparrows, were relegated to wetlands because song sparrows had already settled on the drier territories, swamp sparrows are also physically suited to wetlands. Their legs are longer than those of song sparrows. This allows them to wade in shallow water for long periods and pick both insect and plant food from the water’s surface. They also move through the bases of dense shrubbery, unlike song sparrows, which seem unable to move through thick vegetation and search for food floating on water.Earlier observers of swamp sparrows described them as wading “in shallow water like a sandpiper,” and “splashing through the water like little muskrats.” T.S. Roberts wrote that a swamp sparrow “climbs up and down the coarse stems of the reeds and bushy shoots in a nimble, mouse-like manner…” In summary, shallow standing water, low dense cover, and elevated song posts provide ideal habitat for breeding swamp sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow, by Fritz Myer on Flickr

But in migration, although they prefer thick vegetation near water, they also visit old fields, farm hedgerows, blackberry thickets, and even residential shrubbery — habitat that we have around our feeder area and nearby. They don’t always avoid woods and mountains either, especially if they include small swamps, bogs, or swales in forest openings such as our small swamp at the base of First Field.

Nevertheless, song sparrows always occupy our shrubby environs, even those wet areas near our springhouse, so the swamp sparrow left when it warmed up on April 19. I like to think that he ended his migration in a northwestern Pennsylvania swamp where his musical “weet-weet-weet” trill attracted a mate. He would have declared his territorial boundaries from several elevated song posts and even shifted his boundaries as surface water shifted.

She would have sat on another perch, fluttered her wings and softly mewed. He would have quickly searched for her and formed what is usually a monogamous union for the season.

The female swamp sparrow selects the nest site and builds her nest in three to four days. At Pymatuning Reservoir, most swamp sparrow nests are constructed between cattail stalks or on bent over clumps of leaves and are hidden in or under dense vegetation. The nest is rough on the outside and neat on the inside and is composed of local grasses, sedges, cattails and other plant materials.

She lays an average of four strongly marked, pale green eggs at Pymatuning Reservoir anywhere from May 20 to July 18 according to ornithologist Melissa Hughes. She then incubates the eggs 12 to 14 days. After that, she broods the nestlings, and both parents feed them. It takes another 9 to 11 days for the altricial young to fledge, although if they are disturbed at 7 days of age they can already flutter to the ground and later from branch to branch. The parents may continue to feed them for another two weeks. Most swamp sparrows in Pennsylvania raise two broods a season.

At any time during egg-laying, incubation and nestling stages, a host of predators can interfere. Blue jays are the major predator, but other suspects include minks, northern water snakes, garter snakes, voles, raccoons, and common grackles. Hughes reports that eggs were often stolen one or two at a time at Pymatuning, and she suspects either garter snakes or voles. Flooding sometimes kills broods too. In general, unusually harsh weather as well as cats, dogs, hawks, owls, shrikes and rodents kill swamp sparrows throughout the year.

Swamp Sparrow, by Scott A. Young on Flickr

But wetland loss remains the greatest threat to this species. When a beaver pond was drained at the Erie National Wildlife Refuge back in 1985, the number of breeding swamp sparrows went from five to zero, and the dried-up land was claimed by song sparrows. The extensive wetlands in northwest Pennsylvania are particularly important to swamp sparrows because they provide many breeding territories lightly impacted by humans that produce high quality abundant food for swamp sparrow families.

They mostly eat weeds and fruits in the winter, but during the breeding season they also consume a wide variety of insects such as damselflies, dragonflies, beetles, ants, bees and aphids. Fledglings and adults eat plant food as well and especially like the fleshy insides of high bush blueberries. During late summer and fall the seeds of sedges, smartweed, panic grass and vervain are popular.

By late April my sparrow April was mostly over. Not only had the swamp sparrow left but also the American tree, fox, and white-throated sparrows and the dark-eyed juncos. Field, chipping, and song sparrows and eastern towhees had set up territories in the yard, overgrown fields, and shrubby areas. True spring had arrived at last.

Photos: Dark-eyed junco by tcd123usa; Towhee by Henry McLin; American tree sparrow by ericbegin2000; Field sparrow and first photo of swamp sparrow (the same individual discussed in the article) by Dave Bonta; first large photo of swamp sparrow by Fritz Myer; second large photo of swamp sparrow by Scott A. Young. Thanks to the photographers for licensing their photos under Creative Commons for free, non-commercial use with attribution.

April Journal Highlights (1)

Heaven on Earth

April 1. Forty degrees at dawn and overcast. But a flash of sunlight encouraged me to go outside before the expected rain. I was fully dressed, boots laced, umbrella hanging on my belt, when the heavens opened. April Fool, I thought, and prepared to spend the day inside, catching up on my writing. In the midst of the cold rain, the first daffodils opened.

April 2. As I set out on my morning walk up Guesthouse Trail, the sun penetrated the fog. In a few minutes it was clear and warm here. Not so in the valleys. They were filled up with fog that spilled over the lower ridges. Maybe that’s why the red-winged blackbirds flew up here to sing.

A winter wren sang briefly as I sat on Coyote Bench. I also heard the clear notes of a blue-headed vireo.

At the largest vernal pond, I found no sign of wood frogs, but on the pond bottom below a small clutch of eggs still floating in the water, I saw many more clutches of wood frog eggs.

Four hen turkeys ran across First Field Trail at the very same place I saw them the other day. Nature does repeat itself once in a while.

April 3. Sitting on Pit Mound Trail on Laurel Ridge, I watched a couple hermit thrushes fly silently downslope. One stopped to flip over leaves before continuing north.

Sitting on Shrew Bench, I watched a question mark butterfly on the ground, pumping its wings in the warming sun. Later, on Laurel Ridge Trail, a blue azure twinkled ahead of me like one of the wee fairies of Irish whimsey. A trailing arbutus bloomed and I knelt to sniff its sweet odor as I do every spring.

Coming back on Short Circuit Trail, I heard a long trill that sounded too high to be a chipping sparrow. I looked around and saw a pine warbler foraging and singing in the top of a tall white pine.

The thermometer hit 79 degrees by mid-afternoon, and more daffodils opened as the day progressed. I almost imagined I could see them opening so quickly did the blossoms appear. The forsythia was almost out too. The pink hyacinths, planted among the daylilies, were also blooming. Sitting outside on the veranda in the evening, I heard eastern towhees calling from several directions. At least one spring peeper also called.

April 4. Forty-four degrees at dawn, rain and fog. A male brown-headed cowbird and two females came into the feeder area. So did a fox sparrow, or perhaps I should say the fox sparrow.

At noon the fog thickened and then, in just a few minutes, the sun shone through it and blue sky appeared. As we ate lunch, we counted dozens of northern flickers in the yard, poking around in the ground like robins. A hen turkey also paraded past at the edge of First Field. Was she listening for a gobbler?

I headed over to Greenbrier Trail after lunch. At least two blue-headed vireos sang, and then, to my astonishment, a ruby-crowned kinglet sang. Usually, I don’t hear them until the middle of April.

Already the barberry shrubs, arbor vitae, and multiflora roses have greened up, and red maples are in full gold and red bloom. Garlic mustard has sprouted everywhere. A new study shows that it kills the soil fungi needed by maple and ash trees to grow. In front of a hedge of barberries was a cluster of native spicebushes in bloom. Natives mix with non-natives, Pennsylvania cress vs. garlic mustard, spicebush vs. barberry, red and striped maples vs. ailanthus, blackberry vs. multi-flora rose. What a mixture we have brewed.

At least all the birds are native, and they seem to have the intelligence to switch to new foods when they need to — for instance, those non-native berry-producers that have taken the place of our native shrubs that have been consumed by our overabundant deer.

April is a wonderful month for birdsong because it is a mixture of those that are staying with those that are leaving or merely migrating through such as the fox, white-throated and American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets, and brown creepers.

But where are the Carolina wrens? They were here until the March cold and snowstorms. Then, as I was writing these very words in my notebook while sitting on a log, a winter wren came to within a couple feet of me, calling and bouncing up and down like a diminutive teeny-bopper. It was almost as if it was offering itself as a consolation prize for the loss of the Carolina wren. A strange coincidence.

I continued my walk and looked up to see a porcupine snoozing high in a tulip poplar tree. A red-tailed hawk called, but I couldn’t see it. Cardinals sang as the wind picked up and more ruby-crowned kinglets warbled and ended with their signature “Look at me, look at me, look at me.” Then I heard the “mew” of a yellow-bellied sapsucker, migrating through on its usual schedule.

Yet the old, dried, beige leaves of the beech trees still clung to the branches, and they shivered in the breeze like miniature ghosts of winter past. New leaves should be pushing them off soon.

On a hunch, I crossed the stream at Pit Mound Trail and found the first few delicate yellow round-leaved violets in bloom. Then I sat next to the rushing stream to catch those invigorating ions. Ah! I still believe heaven on earth is an Appalachian spring! Talk about resurrection. I see it all about me and wish only to live through many more springs. To go from barren to overflowing in only a couple months continues to be awe-inspiring. And yet I usually sit alone. Even people who are retired only celebrate spring from their car windows. More and more people have less and less contact with the natural world in our videophiliac country. Even those who live in the country are more wedded to their riding lawn mowers and barbecue pits and rarely venture into the pockets of wildness beyond their acres of closely-cropped grass.

The first hepatica flower bloomed on the road bank.

Return to Winter

April 5. Twenty-four degrees at dawn and overcast. A sudden plunge back into winter and we spent the day in State College. Off-and-on snow showers melted on the warm ground and roads.

At home I looked out to see the birds mobbing the feeders and ground beneath them. The fox sparrow was still here, as well as chipping, field, tree, song, and white-throateds, but what was that sparrow? It’s head was a deeper chestnut than that of a chipping sparrow. It had gray instead of white on either side of the chestnut patch on top of its head. A black line ran through its eye. It had a pale patch below its throat and no spot in the middle of its chest like a song sparrow, only blurry streaking. Its wings were a reddish-brown. Could it be a swamp sparrow? Indeed it was. And I had learned another one of those LBJs or little brown jobs.

April 6. Twenty-two degrees at dawn and snowing this Good Friday. The snow covered the daffodils and hyacinths as more than two inches fell. The swamp sparrow was back, along with all the other sparrows and goldfinches.

I sighed and put my winter clothes on again. Then I set out into the bright sunlight in mid-morning. Would the birds I heard on April 4 still be around? Yellow-bellied sapsuckers called in Margaret’s Woods, ruby-crowned kinglets sang and foraged on Greenbrier Trail. A towhee called once. Yes, they were still all here.

April 7. I found the same birds at the Far Field as I had during yesterday’s walk in the opposite direction–several brown creepers and hermit thrushes, a quiet phoebe insect-catching from a limb, a pair of bluebirds, towhees calling and singing from all directions, a couple yellow-bellied sapsuckers, winter wrens wherever I went, and once I heard a portion of a ruby-crowned kinglet song. I also scattered a herd of six deer.

Mostly sunlight except for a snow shower that caused a complete white-out of Sinking Valley, but it didn’t amount to much when it reached the mountaintop. This unseasonable cold has spread throughout the East and Midwest and as far south as Georgia, blackening peach tree blossoms and threatening other fruit crops as well. Luckily, our own local fruit orchard owners are smart enough to plant several varieties of peaches, apples, strawberries, etc. so that they bloom at different times and luckily it hadn’t been warm enough in our area to bring out the tree blossoms yet.

I sat at the Far Field and soaked up as much sunshine as possible while the wind howled over Sapsucker Ridge.

Steve reported seeing a silent Louisiana waterthrush near the forks. Right on time despite the weather.

A single opossum came to the feeder area as it has most evenings. I always talk to it when I bring the feeders in, and it seems to be getting used to my voice, because instead of running off, it glances up briefly and then goes back to eating.

April 8. Twenty-six degrees at dawn and windy, dropping to 23 degrees by 9:00 a.m. when I went out for my walk. What a gloomy, gray, cold Easter. Daffodils laid on the ground and I wondered if they would resurrect after this incredible cold? The birds were almost silenced at dawn and afterward.

Once I heard a winter wren calling and half of a blue-headed vireo song, but mostly the woods were silent. Sitting on Shrew Bench, I did hear the faint gobbles of a turkey.

April 9. Another new inch of snow. By 9:00 it was 31 degrees, a few flakes still sifted down, but the sun occasionally shone. Birds mobbed the feeder area, including six mourning doves. One kept up his dolorous song as I headed across a mostly silent First Field and into an equally quiet Margaret’s Woods. But on Greenbrier Trail, a winter wren sang as I sat hidden back in the brush. I also heard a towhee, ruby-crowned kinglets, and a blue-headed vireo. A trio of black-capped chickadees landed on the witch hazel shrub in front of me, “dee-deeing” within a couple feet of me and flitting above my head.

A gobbler answered the hen calls I made with the box caller, and although his gobbles came closer over the next 20 minutes or so, I never saw him.

April 10. The mountain laurel looked pitiful even on the powerline right-of-way and semed to be in a free fall. Leaves on whole shrubs have turned brown and dropped. More and more gray bodies, contorted, naked branches bereft of leaves.

On Guesthouse Trail many of the small rhododendron shrubs have been recently stripped of leaves by the deer.

At the Far Field, I listened to a ruffed grouse drumming in the woods beyond, but I could not sneak close enough to see him. Eastern towhees called, along with a ruby-crowned kinglet or two. Once in a while a dim sun penetrated the clouds. When it did the birds activated. A bluebird sang briefly. Then a cardinal, followed by a ruby-crowned kinglet. I’ve never heard as many ruby-crowns as I have this spring. Usually they move on after a week or so.

See also my recent post on the Plummer’s Hollow blog.