Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Million Sparrows (and Ospreys and Gators)

My neighbor the Chipping Sparrow

At the Catholic high school I attended, we used to sing a song during liturgy services that included the lines "You are worth a million sparrows/ sheltered by the Lord." Even though I wasn't a birder at the time, I wondered about the math behind this equivalency: which bored Vatican bureaucrats came up with this? What's wrong with sparrows, anyhow?

Before I started birding, I thought sparrows were boring (after all, the insignificance of sparrows is officially enshrined in Catholic theology!) When I first started birding, I found sparrows—and the endless identification problems they posed—utterly terrifying.

And this weekend, they were all I wanted to see.

Some visitors last week set my sparrow lust in motion; a large flock of Chipping Sparrows discovered my feeder, and has been keeping me entertained (and dangerously distracted from work) for hours on end. I'd seen these birds only a couple of times back in California, and close-up in my tiny yard, it's easy to see how colorful they are. (They're also quite gluttonous—one day last week, I watched a fat little guy perched at the feeder, calmly eating sunflower seeds for about 5 minutes. I left the room to brush my teeth—and when I came back, about three minutes later, he was still there!)

The other bird I've been trying in vain to find is the White-throated Sparrow. Around here, the White-crowned Sparrows are supposed to be (relatively) uncommon, while the White-throated Sparrows are regular wintering birds. But so far this winter, I've seen numerous White-crowneds and no White-throateds (which would be a life bird for me).

Yesterday, I ran into a birder at La Chua who knew I had been trying to find White-throated Sparrows—he said he'd seen a flock just minutes before, and was nice enough to walk with me back to where they had been. And of course, once we got there, they were gone.

Still, it was a great day out--we saw a pair of Ospreys mating, and about four American Bitterns hunting in the water. But I still wanted my sparrows.

So today, I broke my pledge to go somewhere other than La Chua, and headed back there again. Everyone had been seeing those darned sparrows there but me. My friend from yesterday said he has the best luck finding them early in the morning, so I got there just before 8 and started looking.

Already, it seems that winter is ceding its way to spring. The Sandhill Crane flocks were thinning out as the birds started heading north to their breeding grounds (according to park rangers, they'll be gone by next week), and the little thicket of plum trees where the White-throated Sparrows had been seen was already in bloom.

The nesting Ospreys were still there; here's one of them on its nest:

The little plum tree thicket was quiet except for a couple of Orange-crowned Warblers, so I worked my way towards the prairie. There, of course, were the White-crowned Sparrows, the now-resident Harris' Sparrow, and half a dozen or so migrant birders following in his wake. The Harris' Sparrow is quite bold: today, he was feeding on the ground with the White-crowned Sparrows, and got within 10 feet of me! (But of course he flew the minute I reached for my camera!)

I saw a flock of sparrows moving back towards the trailhead, and decided to follow them. Back among the plum trees, I finally found what I came for: a flock of White-throated Sparrows! They were darting about through the trees quite quickly, but a few got close enough for good looks. None of my photos are suitable for public consumption, unfortunately.

The weather started getting warm; a real change from the sub-freezing temperatures of the past week. The alligators were out, taking full advantage of the sunshine. I like how this guy made a custom-fitted little niche for himself among the lotuses:

So I finally got what I was looking for—my long-sought White-throated Sparrows and a third good look at the Harris' Sparrow. I'm not sure if I'm worth a million sparrows, but a few good sparrows can make you feel like a million.

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