Conversation with a Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow Ottawa’s international airport is an excellent place for birding in the late spring and summer.  Although many of its regular residents haven’t arrived yet, birding the trails here in late April can be rewarding.  As my fiancé had to work on Easter Monday, I dropped him off then proceeded to Bowesville Road where there is ample parking and access to the trails on either side of the road.

As soon as I got out of the car I heard a Song Sparrow and a Brown-headed Cowbird singing.  I checked the first pair of bluebird boxes and found only a couple of Tree Swallows in the vicinity.  Eastern Bluebirds are one of the airport specialties that draws many birders here each spring; the airport is perhaps the easiest place to find them in the Ottawa area.  However, none were present at their usual box so I continued on my way to the trails.

After passing through the trail entrance I immediately heard a Savannah Sparrow singing from a line of shrubs just south of the sandy track used by dirt bikes.  Its song is similar in rhythm to the Song Sparrow’s, but much drier and buzzier in tone.  I spotted the singer on the end of a branch near the left-hand side of the bush and noted it for my year list.

Savannah Sparrow

Singing Savannah Sparrow

The fields immediately behind the dirt bike track are normally excellent for sparrows.  I thought I’d find a few Field Sparrows for sure, as it’s too early yet for Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows, but all I heard were Song Sparrows.  I doubled back to the main trail to try a different route, and that’s when I heard the paired calls of a Brown Thrasher! This was another year bird for me, and I found him in the same group of shrubs as the Savannah Sparrow.  He flew off before I could take his picture, so I turned around and continued walking toward the large sand pit.  I was hoping to find some interesting birds near the small pond there, but found only a single chickadee, a Northern Flicker and another Song Sparrow.  Then I realized one of the songs I was hearing was not that of a Song Sparrow, but instead a Vesper Sparrow.  I found two of them near the sand pit, both too high in the trees to photograph.

I came across a thick stand of conifers – spruce, perhaps? – which intrigued me.  I couldn’t hear any birds calling or singing from within, but it looked like a great place to find an owl.  I found my way into the center of the trees and began looking for signs of activity.  A couple of Red Squirrels chattered at me, and first I thought the wood was deserted.  Then a brownish bird with a high-pitched call swooped by.  I didn’t quite know what it was until it flew by a second time and landed in a tree close by.  There were too many branches in the way to photograph it, but I recognized it as an accipiter!  It called again, and this time I took out my iPhone to check the calls of both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.  Sure enough, the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s call was an exact match, and the small accipiter reacted immediately by flying over me a third time.  I was thrilled to have finally identified an accipiter, especially since I was able to do so not by physical appearance but rather by voice.

After that encounter I left the Bowesville Road trails to drive over to High Road.  There was a lot of construction on Bowesville, perhaps explaining why all the bluebird boxes appeared to be empty.  On Earl Armstrong I noted three Turkey Vultures flying together, and several Tree and Barn Swallows near the large pond.  Half of the pond has now been filled in and I saw no ducks or herons in the water or along the edge.

While checking the swallows, I heard a Savannah Sparrow singing extremely close by.  I couldn’t see any sparrows on the fence posts, but then realized the singer was on the bottom-most wire.    I took a couple of steps toward him, and he flew off…to the top wire right in front of me!  I froze, and slowly raised my camera.  Because he was so close, I managed to get my best photos ever of this species.

Airport 447 (2)

He kept singing, too, and then turning around to look at me to see if I was still there.  Perhaps he was checking whether I was sneaking up on him, or perhaps he was curious as to whether I was enjoying the song.  Not as musical as the Song Sparrow, the Savannah Sparrow’s song follows a similar pattern, but much buzzier, as if he were singing “zit-zit-zit-zeeee-zaaay”, with the final note dropping in pitch.  Because I was so close, I took some video of this bird after he flew up onto a fence post:

This species is named after the city of Savannah, Georgia, where one of the first specimens of this bird was collected.  It has a large range and can be found all across North America where it breeds in marine, grassland, wetland, and shrubland ecosystems. The fine streaking and yellowish eyebrow stripe help to distinguish it from the similar Song Sparrow, which also shares many of the same habitats.  With sparrows, however, I find the best way to identify them is through song.

Savannah Sparrow

It was fantastic spending time with this little bird, and by the time I left I felt as though I’d just been engaged in a long conversation with him.

At the end of High Road I heard a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks and another Savannah Sparrow.  Tree Swallow were the most abundant species, however, checking out the bluebird boxes and landing on the overhead wires.  I didn’t see any bluebirds at all during my visit to the airport trails, which surprises me…this is the first time I can recall stopping here without seeing a single one.

Tree Swallow

It will be fun to return in a month or so when the rest of the breeding birds – such as Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows, House Wrens, Least Flycatchers and Bobolinks – return.  Perhaps I’ll even see a bluebird.

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