A Sparrowful Day

American Tree Sparrow

I took a long weekend in mid-October to spend some time with my family in Cambridge, then spent Monday at home to recover from the five-hour drive. As it was a bright, sunny day, I decided to go to Sarsaparilla Trail and Shirley’s Bay to stretch my legs. Although the sun was beautiful, the winds were strong – especially out on the dyke – and there was no lingering summer warmth in the 10°C temperature.

At Sarsaparilla, the usual gang of chickadees were feeding on seed left on the bench at the trail entrance. A couple of juncos were also foraging on the ground, as was a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow. This was something of a surprise since I don’t recall ever seeing this species here.

In the woods, the high-pitched call notes of the Golden-crowned Kinglets drifted down from the conifers, and I found a single robin perching in a tree. A White-breasted Nuthatch accompanied the chickadees picking up seeds scattered on the ground near the boardwalk, and on the large pond I found a Great Blue Heron and a male Hooded Merganser among the usual mallards, black ducks, and Canada Geese. The best birds of my walk, however, were the Fox Sparrows I found further along the trail. There are a couple of large rocks where people put out bird seed, and while watching a couple of juncos I noticed a pair of larger, chunkier songbirds resting in the trees just behind the rocks. A closer examination revealed them to be Fox Sparrows, a species I’d been searching for all autumn with no success. I threw some more seed down onto the rocks, then stepped back and waited patiently for them to investigate. After a short time, one of them flew down onto the rock and began feeding.

Fox Sparrow

I snapped a few pictures and, pleased with the sighting, continued on my way to Shirley’s Bay. I hadn’t been there in a while, and thought I’d take a walk along the dyke to look for the Gray Jay which had been recently seen there.

I ran into Chris B. at the feeders on Hilda Road, and we decided to walk out along the dyke together. Right near the fence we saw a Blue-headed Vireo flitting about in a tree; this was rather late in the season for this species to still be hanging around. We found a few other migrants along the dyke, including a couple of juncos, several American Tree Sparrows, and even a robin. Unfortunately the water levels had risen since I’d last visited in September, obliterating all of the shorebird habitat. The shorebirds – and the Great Egrets – were all gone, having departed for browner pastures.

Shirley’s Bay Dyke – Haycock Island

The waterfowl were more varied; we saw a distant flock of Redheads, four Buffleheads, one Common Merganser, a couple of White-winged Scoters, a juvenile Red-necked Grebe and a small group of scaup. While scanning the bay behind the first island (Haycock Island), I just happened to turn around in time to spot two Horned Grebes emerging from the water right next to the shore! I told Chris to turn around, although by that time they had seen us and were swimming off in a hurry. Chris and I spent a wonderful half hour watching these birds; one swam off, while the second kept diving below the surface and returning to the same section of the shore, allowing us to get some great photographs:

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

By the time the grebe had finally had enough of us, swimming back out toward the middle of the river, I had had enough of the wind and the tears streaming down my face. We walked back to the parking lot together, and went our separate ways. I returned to the Hilda Road Feeders where I counted a total of five different sparrow species: several American Tree Sparrows, three White-throated Sparrows, four White-crowned Sparrows, a single Song Sparrow and a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Sparrows all belong to the Family Emberizidae and are known for their drab, brownish appearance that makes them difficult to identify. Most sparrows dwell on the ground and are secretive in nature. These birds have short, conical bills designed for eating seeds, although in the summer they eat insects as well. Many species scratch about on the ground to search for food beneath the leaf litter, using both feet to hop forward then backward.

I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the Song Sparrow to compare with the other sparrows present. The Song Sparrow, which belongs to the genus Melospiza, is more closely related to the Lincoln’s Sparrow and the Swamp Sparrow than any of the other Emberizids I had seen that day.

As is apparent from their appearance, the White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows are closely related. Both belong to the genus Zonotrichia, which are characterized by their large, heavy-bodied appearance. The White-crowned Sparrow is grayer in appearance and has a gentler look. It never has the yellow lores found on the similar-looking White-throated Sparrow.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

In this photo you can see the wind blowing this individual’s feathers:

White-throated Sparrow

The American Tree Sparrow belongs to the genus Spizella, which includes the Field Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, and Clay-colored Sparrow. While the American Tree Sparrow is a winter visitor in Ottawa, dwelling in brushy, weedy areas where seeds are plentiful, the other species all fly south in the winter, only returning in the spring to breed.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

With its gray and white body, it is clear that the junco is quite different from the other members of the Emberizid family. The Dark-eyed Junco is the only member of its genus (Junco) found in Canada, although one of its subspecies – the Oregon Junco, a rare visitor to Ottawa – lives in British Columbia. Other subspecies live further south in the United States.

Dark-eyed Junco

The Fox Sparrow (above) is the only member of the genus Passerella. However, it is more closely related to sparrows of the genus Zonotrichia than to the other Emberizids. Like the White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, the Fox Sparrow is large and has a chunky appearance.

Sparrows weren’t the only birds visiting the feeders. A half-dozen Red-winged Blackbirds, including one female, were enjoying the bounty, as were a couple of Mourning Doves, a Hairy Woodpecker and a couple of goldfinches. Blue Jays, as usual, were numerous.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

I was surprised when a male cardinal landed on one of the rocks next to my open window and began feeding on the seed. Normally these shy birds keep well back from the road.

Northern Cardinal

The only mammals present were squirrels and chipmunks, although I’d also seen Snowshoe Hares, Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, and White-tailed Deer at various times in the past. Both Red and Eastern Gray Squirrels were busily feeding on seeds left on the rocks, and at first I saw only a couple of normal Eastern Chipmunks stuffing their cheeks below the feeders. A little while later, the little black chipmunk which had caused such a stir in the summer emerged from his hideout and joined the others.

Melanistic Eastern Chipmunk

I was really happy to see that this rare chipmunk was still around and that he was able to gather food without getting into an altercation with the other chipmunks.

Melanistic Eastern Chipmunk

Melanistic Eastern Chipmunk

Seeing the black chipmunk again was truly the perfect end to a perfect day. With a forecasted drop in temperatures on the way, it won’t be much longer before these endearing little creatures shut themselves away in their snug burrows for the winter. Sometimes I wish I could do the same!

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