Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two of Everything!

Get a room!

My car is coated with pollen, my normally polite students are grumpy and distracted, and field of boring (non-avian) warblers on American Idol is almost down to the single digits. Which means only one thing:


It not only feels like spring, but sounds like spring. On my morning runs (just after sunrise, which is allegedly when all the muggers and kidnappers are back in bed) I hear calls and songs and scolds from seemingly twice as many birds as before, all going at double speed and double volume. The intensity and urgency of their calls makes me want to run faster—but it also tempts me to go home, grab my bins, and walk my route, checking the trees for migrants. Some of the vocalizations are unfamiliar, and I want to know who's making them. Most likely, our year-round residents in a hormone-induced frenzy, but still. Alas, this time-intensive option isn't doable on work days. So I run faster.

At our feeder, we're also seeing signs of spring. Our resident male Northern Cardinal has been feeding his mate, a sign that nesting will soon begin. Two Carolina Wrens have been following each other closely as they explore our peanut feeder and occasional meal worm treats—no doubt a pair. They've been eating heartily in anticipation of —well, whatever it is they're up to! Over the weekend, one of them managed to gobble down two meal worms at once:

I've learned, though, that spring migration doesn't hit Gainesville until relatively late in the season. The summering Northern Parulas are back, and word is out that the first Prothonotory Warblers of the season have been spotted—but we're not expecting a real influx of good stuff for a few more weeks. Meanwhile, our winter birds are still here: the Chipping Sparrows still arrive by the dozen at our feeder every morning, and on Sunday, we got a new bird at our feeder: a wintering American Goldfinch:

Now where was this guy back in December, when I put down major ducats for all that thistle seed nobody touched?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

(Nearly) Wordless Wednesday Winter Warblers

Black-and-white Warbler, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Morningside Nature Center, Gainesville.

Palm Warbler, Morningside Nature Center, Gainesville.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nuthatch Patch

A Brown-headed Nuthatch at Morningside Nature Center

Gainesville is an odd place to bird. We're too far north to get all the famous Florida specialties such as Snail Kites and Anis, and on the southern end of the range for many typical birds of the continental U.S. Typical bird-feeder visitors such Tufted Titmice are rare to nonexistent only a few hours south of us, and everyday backyard birds common just north of here get Gainesville birders strangely excited. One of these is the Brown-headed Nuthatch.

Bird guides list these as common and easy to find, but here in Gainesville, they only occur in one place: Morningside Nature Center, a sprawling park filled with longleaf pines and scrubby palmettos. And even at Morningside, seeing one is not always a sure bet. But the past few weekends, we got lucky: we saw not one, but two, and noticed they were a pair, and were nesting!

While hiking the back trails at Morningside, I saw two more Brown-headed Nuthatches, who took turns pecking violently inside a deep hole on the side of a dead tree, squeaking loudly the whole time. The birds seemed to be traveling together, and it wasn't clear to me if they were feeding at that tree or trying to excavate a nest hole. I actually have no clue if Brown-headed Nuthatches are capable of excavating nest cavities by themselves, but it seemed like an interesting idea to contemplate.

The local Nuthatch Patch is a good place to be right now. Can't wait for the Nuthatch Patch hatch is a few weeks!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sparrow Me the Details

A Field Sparrow at La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie State Reserve

Something has long puzzled me about the popular portrayal of birders—and it's not our image as humorless, pith-helmet-wearing ninnies tiptoeing pretentiously across the savannah with binoculars nerdily jammed to our (generally pale and unattractive) faces. It's the baffling phenomenon in which writers, trying to sound as though they get what we're doing, always citing the phrase "little brown jobs". This term, they inform the reading public in a confidential whisper, is a central example of birdwatcher cant; it's what birdwatchers call all those plain little brown birds—such as sparrows—that nobody can tell apart.

There are a couple of problems with this: First, birders never actually say "little brown jobs". At least, in my five or so years of birding, I've never heard a serious birder say that. For that matter, I've never heard a casual or even a newbie birder say that. And I have no clue where people get the idea that we do.

The other falsehood behind the mysterious "little brown job" meme is this: While it's true that many birders find sparrows and some other small birds frustrating to ID, this is not because they are so plain. On the contrary, it's because sparrows have hellishly complex plumages, on tiny, fast-moving bodies. (This distinction is somehow lost on journalists with looming deadlines and no binoculars.) And the difference between a common yard bird and a rarity could be a tiny difference in color on exactly the part of the bird that's currently being obscured by a branch.

As some of my students would say, "That's SOOO unfair! How can you expect us to do something SOOO HARD??"

But this challenge is part of what makes birding so entrancing, even when it makes you want to rip your eyeballs out.

Here's an example: This, I'm pretty sure, is a Savannah Sparrow:

And this is a Song Sparrow. I think:

In a birding class I took back in California, I learned that a reliable way to tell Savannahs and Songs apart is that Savannahs have a yellowish wash on their "eyebrows", while the Songs have a solid gray color. This seems to hold for the birds pictured here. However, I learned from a reliable source that the Savannah Sparrows out here don't always have that yellowish wash above the eye.

The other common diagnostic for Song Sparrows is the presence of a dark spot in the center of the chest. However, my reliable source says this isn't a foolproof diagnostic, either; sometimes Song Sparrows lack it and other sparrows have it. The Savannah Sparrow above, for instance, seems to have a nice little splotch on its chest.

But—my sparrow-maven friend reminds me (and I keep forgetting)—tne thing that's unlikely to vary no matter what strange pose the bird hits is its overall shape and proportions. Here's another Savannah Sparrow; its tail looks noticeably shorter than that of the Song Sparrow:

Ergo, the second bird up is a Song Sparrow. Maybe.

Just to show that not all sparrows look alike, here's a Grasshopper Sparrow:

We saw this bird at Persimmon Point, just above the La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie State Reserve, a few weeks ago. Persimmon Point and La Chua are only a football field apart as the crow (or sparrow) flies, but the Grasshopper Sparrows are picky: they like the open grasslands at the former site, but not at the latter.

Sparrows used to be among the birds I gave myself the right to ignore because they were just too confusing. I'm still confused, but helped a bit by my realization that sparrows are just as varied and finicky about their surroundings as people. Swamp Sparrows, for instance, show up precisely where Grasshopper Sparrows don't: near the water's edge at La Chua. They look a little like Savannah and Song Sparrows. But they're not:

(Spring break has just begun, and I desperately need a break from the epic explain-a-thon that is my teaching life.)

And maybe this is where the "little brown job" thing came from: Some clever birder back in prehistory, tired of trying to explain the differences between sparrows to distracted reporters who just wanted sound bites, gave in and came up with a sound bite. And to his embarrassment, the sound bite stuck.

But it was better than rambling pointlessly on about the differences between Song and Savannah Sparrows, and looking like a total dork in print.