Fledgling Season

Swamp Sparrow

By late July nesting season is over for many species and the newly fledged young are beginning to learn how to make their way in the world. Although the young birds are rapidly gaining their independence, their parents are still present, seeking out food sources and teaching their offspring how to forage on their own while avoiding predators and other dangers. I headed out to Stony Swamp one morning in late July and was surprised by how many different fledglings I found – sparrows, mainly, but also robins, Blue Jays and even a Downy Woodpecker.

I started the morning with a walk at the Beaver Trail, where I observed 25 species in total. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was present in the parking lot, and I heard a pair of Alder Flycatchers in the marsh – this isn’t a species I hear often here anymore. I also heard a Common Gallinule in the marsh close to where a Belted Kingfisher was hanging out, though the kingfisher didn’t stay long when I arrived at the observation dock.

Other species seen or heard include Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Common Raven, and Scarlet Tanager. At the V-shaped boardwalk I came across a number of sparrows calling in the marsh, and recognized the sharp notes of a couple of Swamp Sparrows. A few were investigating seed left on the boardwalk, and quickly flew into the reeds when I approached. I stopped and started pishing, and two of them immediately flew out into the open. This juvenile still has some faint streaks on its breast, an orange gape at the corner of its mouth, and a single white downy feather still attached to its forehead.

Swamp Sparrow

True to their name, Swamp Sparrows build their open, cup-shaped nests of dry grasses and marsh plants in dense cattails just above the water. The nests are built by the female and lined with fine grass, plant fibers, and occasionally hair. Although the nests are well-concealed and difficult to find, they still may be parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. Both parents feed the young.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrows are well-suited for their life in cattail marshes and various types of other wetlands. They dine on seeds, fruits, and aquatic invertebrates, and often feed at the water’s edge where they use their long legs to wade in shallow water to forage. Swamp Sparrows have even been known to stick their heads under the water to try to capture aquatic invertebrates. This fledgling bird responded to my pishing by flying up onto a cattail flower head where it began swaying back and forth. Note the length of the legs – they are longer than the legs of other sparrows in the same genus, Melospiza, which includes Song and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow

While watching the Swamp Sparrows, a bird flew in and landed on one of the dead trees in the middle of the marsh. It was an empidonax flycatcher, perhaps one of the Alder Flycatchers I had heard earlier, but as it didn’t call or sing I wasn’t able to confirm this. I left the boardwalk and continued on my walk, coming across three Blue Jays, one of which was a juvenile begging for food. Common Yellowthroats were common, a flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, and a single Common Grackle was at the observation dock with the usual Red-winged Blackbirds. When I reached the parking lot I found this fellow eating the grass right in front of my car:

Snowshoe Hare

This Snowshoe Hare is obviously a survivor; not only do both ears have small notches in them, a patch of fur is also missing near its right shoulder. The most likely reason for this damage is that it got into a fight with another wild animal. Though I frequently see Snowshoe Hares in the summer, especially in the grassy areas of Stony Swamp or Shirley’s Bay, I rarely see them in the winter anymore when they are covered with their soft, beautiful white fur.

Snowshoe Hare

From there I drove over to Jack Pine Trail. The sun was coming out, and the birds were singing away. I heard four different warbler species, including several Common Yellowthroats, three Black-throated Green Warblers, a Pine Warbler, and two Black-and-white Warblers. Although there are usually several Ovenbirds in the woods here as well, I didn’t hear any on this visit. Other birds observed at Jack Pine Trail included a Double-crested Cormorant flying over, a Gray Catbird, a male Purple Finch in the alvar, several spotted juvenile American Robins, three Northern Flickers, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This Eastern Phoebe was in the alvar; I usually see them near the parking lot instead.

Eastern Phoebe

There were plenty of sparrows in the alvar as well. I heard all of the usual breeding species, such as Field, Song and White-throated Sparrow, as well as our newest residents, a pair of Eastern Towhees. This is the second year they’ve attempted to breed here, and it was nice to hear their distinctive song. I even managed to spot the male perching in a distant tree.

Several of the sparrows were juveniles, and difficult to identify. Without seeing their parents feeding them, I was unable to determine which species these two youngsters are.

Juvenile Sparrow

Juvenile Sparrow

This Field Sparrow was easier to identify, and not only because I had just witnessed its parent feeding it; it has the blank face, white eye-ring and pink bill of adult birds, even if it does lack the rufous cap.

Field Sparrow

I was also thrilled to see a young Downy Woodpecker in the same area. Although it doesn’t have a distinctive fleshy gape, the red of its head extends almost to its forehead, a trait found in both male and female juvenile Downies.

Downy Woodpecker

Like all of our other woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters. They excavate nests primarily in dead or dying deciduous trees that have been softened by a fungal infection, choosing a branch that angles away from the vertical where they place the entrance on the underside. It takes the pair about one to three weeks to create a cavity that ranges from 6 to 12 inches deep, wider at the bottom than the top to provide room for both the incubating bird and its clutch of 3-8 eggs. Nests are lined only with wood chips. I have been fortunate enough to come across a few woodpecker and sapsucker nests with the young still in them, poking their heads out of the hole while making begging noises. I haven’t found any nests this year, however.

The last fledgling species I saw was a Blue Jay – or rather, a family of Blue Jays. At least three young birds were pestering their parent for food, and it was flying from tree branch to tree branch either looking for for food or trying to get away from them. At one point the adult landed on a branch right above me and looked down at me as though checking whether I had any food; the birds here are well-fed in the winter, and recognize humans as a source of food. I have never seen a Blue Jay approach me in the summer, though, and if I had had any peanuts I would have given some to them. The adult flew off when it became apparent I had no food, and I was able to get a picture of one of the youngsters waiting on a branch. Part of the gape is still visible at the corner of its beak, though it has darkened to grey from its brighter flesh-colour.

Blue Jay

Blue Jays usually mate for life, and pairs remain together throughout the year. Only the female incubates and broods the newly hatched birds; the male provides all the food to her and the nestlings during this time, which could last up to a month. The young remain with and are fed by their parents for at least a month after fledgling, though this period of dependency is variable and can last up to two months.

Although I’ve never seen a baby sparrow or Blue Jay – they need to be fully grown in order to leave the nest – seeing a recently fledged bird is the next closest thing, and it was great seeing so many young birds developing the skills and independence they will need to survive in the wild.


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