Thursday, June 4, 2009

A smattering of sparrows

A huge irony strikes me when I go birding with people at the Wilds during the breeding season. And it hit me again during last weekend's Birding by Ear workshop.

OK, the Wilds is the country's premier research facility for the study and conservation of some REALLY BIG critters. We're talking Reticulated Giraffe, Sichuan Takin, Bactrian Camel, Fringe-eared Oryx, Bison, and many more. There are even Painted Dogs with their curious dish-sized dumbo ears, and Cheetahs. All very well, and of great interest to visitors, birder or not.

But what is it that the birders really want to see? Sparrows! The polar opposite of the aforementioned beasts. Cryptic in plumage and shy and retiring by nature, nevertheless it is the classic little brown jobs that the binocular set wants to see.

All birds look like sparrows to me. There are big sparrows, little sparrows, and gaily colored sparrows” Andy Rooney

Our Birding by Ear group out on sparrow safari. That's the "magic bus" that faithfully delivered us to all sorts of places in the course of racking up nearly a hundred species of birds. Some of them were sparrows.

We congregate around professor Danny Ingold of Muskingum College, who has been studying the breeding sparrows of the Wilds for a decade or more. Danny was good enough to allow us to watch him capture some subjects in his mist nets, then he shared the birds up close and personal.

The Field Sparrow may be a "little brown job", and I can even see how sparrows might all look alike to Andy Rooney, but at close range they are stunners. Note the pink bill and russet cap, both good field marks for this one. This song of this one sounds like an exceptionally melodic pingpong ball dropped on a table and bouncing to a stop.

Dr. Ingold often allows visitors to release birds, and advises them to place the bird in their open palm, upside down. It sometimes takes the bird a bit to realize it is free, and it will just lay there on its back, looking about. Thus, the peculiar feeling of having a wild bird in the hand is prolonged. Then, with a sudden awareness of its freedom, the sparrow will rocket off like a Lamborghini, and often is back singing from the rounds of its territory minutes later.

Grasshopper Sparrow, a truly quintessential LBJ. These are true shrinking violets, never extroverted. Most people would never notice one, and certainly not their song, which is a rather brief insectlike trill. Every now and again, they do give a much more complex stuttering assemblage of trills and other notes that really is quite nice.

All sparrows just require a good close look to see their beauty. This closeup of a Grasshopper Sparrow reveals the subtle palette of ochraceous tints that conspire to create ARTWORK IN BROWN. Such subdued patterning works to keep them exceptionally camouflaged in the meadows that they frequent. This one is in the genus Ammodramus, characterized in part by that flattened big head. They spend much of their time on the ground, creeping about like mice.

Grasshopper males in breeding finery are actually quite showy. It's as if the bend of their wing has been gilded in gold, and people who never really knew the bird well are always impressed when they see one like this.

Heather of the Hills meets Grasshopper Sparrow. It's pretty easy to see Heather's visceral reaction to the the wee chap; she likes him. The reaction of the bird is harder to fathom, as this species is rather inscrutable.

We also caught a Savannah Sparrow, a species with an enormous distribution. They breed across the length and breadth of the North American continent, and occupy a wide range of habitats. Seventeen subspecies are recognized, and Savannah Sparrow may eventually be split into three species. I once was with a group of banders near Chillicothe, and we caught about 80 in one morning in October migration. The variation among individuals was rather dazzling.

The birds that we see in Ohio typically have a strongly yellowish loral spot, blending into the supercilium or eyeline, and finely streaked breasts. They prefer habits that are very open, and have plenty of bare soil patches. Savannahs are not common breeders at the Wilds, as the grasslands are generally too thick and lush. Their song is an exceptionally pleasing two-level trill with some stumbling intro notes: t t tt tttsssseeee-tsssaaayyy! I have heard it numerous times in the background soundtracks of movies and ads, so I guess it must strike a chord with others, too.

Sometimes their name causes confusion. One might think that they are named for the plant community called a savanna (no H on end), with scattered large trees underlain by grasses. But the bird is actually named for its type locality; the place where the first specimen was collected. Which was Savannah, Georgia.
These sparrows bring out the paparazzi, and this may have been the most photographed Savannah Sparrow on planet earth this day. Most sparrows are charmers, and tolerate their brief captivity with seemingly endless patience and good manners.
Except for the next beast.

Henslow's Sparrow, easily the most coveted of the Wilds' nesting sparrows. They are abundant and easily found here - if you know what to look for. But overall it is not a common and widespread species, and is thought to be be decling rapidly. We didn't actually capture this bird during Birding by Ear - this shot comes from another banding venture a few years back. But we did have magnificent looks of the species through our scopes, and heard lots of them.
They are beauties in the hand, olivaceous heads contrasting with rufous-brown wings and back. The song of the Henslow's Sparrow, however, could be ranked among the worst of North American birds. It last but 3/5th's of a second, and sounds - to us - like a cricket in need of singing lessons. It is comical to watch one deliver this simple sound. Mounted atop a teasel or some other low plant, it looks around, tosses its head back as if to offer up a Winter Wren-like aria, and hiccups out a faint tssllik!
But all is not what it seems, and what the female Henslow's hears might be quite different. When the short song is slowed down to one-third or one-half the speed, it becomes this incredibly ornate series of trills and other notes - far more complex than what we can hear.
To all appearances, the Henslow's Sparrow would seem to be the greatest shrinking violet of all amongst the grassland sparrows. Not when you get them in the hand, though. Here one of the savage brutes puts the pinch on your blogger. Given half a chance they'll not hesitate to make their feelings known, and it is certain that they resent being trapped in nets and handled like sheep. Most of the other sparrows never act this way, and are quite placid.

I've probably said it before, but I'll say it again. If you are looking for an interesting field trip this summer, visit the Wilds. And if you are from some distant land beyond Ohio's borders and are planning on coming to the Buckeye State, pay a visit. Not only will you clean up on grassland birds and many others, you can also admire the likes of Fringe-eared Oryx and Cheetah, and there aren't many places where all of these creatures converge.


KatDoc said...

Oh, I am so totally envious! You know how I love sparrows. What a wonderful day! So sorry I could not go - work is definitely an inconvenience.


Heather said...

Great, informative post about the sparrows. Didn't know you guys caught a Henslow's! Guess that's what you all were doing up on that hill for so long! That chomp on the finger is what you get for making the rest of us chumps down below wait so long!
Wow, you posted the pic of me & sparrow before =I= even got around to it.
And not only ochraceous in this post, but also olivaceous?! Wow, you've outdone yourself with these crazy color descriptors!

To any other comment readers out there, I have to second Jim's recommendation to head to the Wilds. This was my second trip there in less than 8 months, and while each trip was vastly different from the other, both were absolutely incredible and informative. Go there.

Jared said...

Great post...I love Henslow's sparrows. Neat tidbit on the explanation of the name "Savannah" Sparrow. I had not known they were named for the type locality.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I love your prose describing the LBJs. They are the most fun to watch singing. They seem to work so hard to deliver their best.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Hey Heather - we wouldn't have held out a Henslow's Sparrow in the hand from the group! That bird was caught a few years ago on a similar field trip. I used the photos in this blog for dispaly purposes only!