Thursday, December 23, 2010

Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula, photo by Bruce Glick

Another Ohio rarity surfaced yesterday, and this one is far more chaseable than the Bohemian Waxwing of my last post.

Photo by Dane Adams

Bruce Glick reported an obliging Harris's Sparrow yesterday, and like most of these western strays, this one was visiting a feeding operation. The homeowner, Robert Troyer, is more than willing to share his find with birders. The address is 9041 Bear Hollow Road, Apple Creek, Ohio. This is in Wayne County, not too far from Wooster, and should be easy to find via Mapquest.

The bird is frequenting feeders along the east side of the house.

Photo by Dane Adams

Dane Adams was up there today, and sent along a few of his characteristically beautiful photos. This is a first-year bird, with just a ring of drippy necklace streaks across its breast. Later, it'll develop a much more extensive black throat and forehead.

Harris's Sparrow is one of four species in the genus Zonotrichia, the others being White-throated, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned sparrows. The Harris's is the largest of the lot, even outsizing the chunky White-crowned Sparrow. It breeds in a somewhat narrow belt in the far north, in tundra west of Hudson Bay, and most of them travel due south to winter in the Great Plains. While rare in the east, it is a regular wanderer to our region, and Ohio sees one nearly every year, most of them in the winter.

There are at least two cool facts about Harris's Sparrow. One, it is the ONLY bird that breeds exclusively in Canada. And two, it was one of the last North American species to have its nest discovered, due to the remoteness of its breeding grounds. In 1931, legendary George Miksch Sutton found the first Harris's Sparrow nest at Churchill, Manitoba. I was in Churchill - Polar Bear capital of the world! - in 1988, and had the wonderful opportunity to experience these plaintive-voiced songsters on their home turf. Like the other Zonotrichia sparrows, Harris's has a whistled song with a mournful, haunting quality.

Harris's Sparrow often fraternizes with White-crowned Sparrows in winter, and frequents brushy fields and scrubby woodland margins. They, as we have seen, are not shy about visiting backyard feeders. Keep your eyes peeled for this one when you are out and about doing Christmas Bird Counts, and at the feeders, especially if you've got numbers of White-crowned or White-throated sparrows visiting.

Many thanks to Bruce Glick for getting word out, and to Robert Troyer for graciously agreeing to allow birders to come visit.

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