Autumn in New England. Just those four little words can evoke so much. I am sure that anybody who has spent any time in the northeast during the season immediately begins to think of Mother Nature’s own fireworks display of color as trees turn various shades of amber and gold, reds, oranges, and yellows, contrasted with the deep blue of a beaver pond reflecting a crisp blue sky, or mixed amongst the greens of any of a variety of evergreens. As birders and naturalists, we always have additional colors added to this spectacular palette that others that who rarely step away from their cars might miss – from the cherry red of a tiny autumnal meadowhawk (dragonfly) to the welcome surprise of an Eastern Comma spreading it’s wings and giving you an unexpected jolt of visual vitamin C. From the avian world, we welcome a wide array of color from the variety of ducks that seem to start appearing on ponds, rivers, and the ocean. Wigeon and teal, Wood Ducks and mergansers all add to the color of fall – but, I will write more on our waterfowl in another post. In this post (and after all this colorful exposition) I am going to write about the color you get when you mix all these together…
Brown. Little brown jobs to be exact. That’s right, the Emberizidae. Sparrows. One of the things I always start thinking about as we head into what I think of as true Autumn (as opposed to what shorebirds and shorebirders think of as autumn – August! Really?!) are the number and variety of sparrows that can be found in New England. Sure we have plenty in spring and summer, and even a few that stick it out through the winter, but it seems that we have the greatest variety in the fall. Local bird clubs are well aware of this and it’s not uncommon for them to have sparrow walks to local farm fields or community gardens where migratory sparrows find plenty of seeds. (I don’t know if it’s just me, but it also seems like sparrows are much more responsive to pishing this time of the year.) It’s the time when we still have some lingering Field and Chipping Sparrows, but with some hard work can also turn up an early Tree or Fox Sparrow.
Swamp, Song and Savannah Sparrows are pretty easy to find, but it’s always nice to have a Lincoln’s Sparrow greet you – although it’s usually only for a moment or two.
White-throated Sparrows “seep” and scratch the litter from almost any brushy area, but look closely and every year you’ll turn up a few White-crowned Sparrows too!
Seems like the few Vesper Sparrows I’ve stumbled across in New England also have been fall migrants. And each year we seem to get one or two each of a vagrant Clay-colored Sparrow or Lark Sparrow.
And although Grasshopper, Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows breed in New England a Ammodramus cousin has made some big news here in the last two years as a LeConte’s Sparrow has been found at some of the better-known “sparrow spots” in Massachusetts. Both birds, although skulky like mice, have been cooperative for many that put in the effort to gain an audience.
Certainly, sparrows are not a local phenomena – I am well aware that there are members of this family all over the US (and in much of Central and South America as well!) – and I am always happy to find (or chase) the local regulars and rarities wherever I travel – Rufous-winged and Five-striped Sparrows in Arizona, Bachman’s Sparrow in Florida, Olive Sparrow in Texas. Now that I think about it, that might be one thing I enjoy about sparrows – that they have represenatives wherever you travel in the US. Some you can see easily, and some you really have to work for – I bet almost every one of you reading this have a “nemesis” sparrow. I certainly do, and am not to proud to say it – mine is Harris’ Sparrow. And the worst thing is, they do occassionally show up in New England, but somehow I’ve never caught up with one.
So, do you have a “nemesis” sparrow? Or how about a favorite one? And why is it your favorite –
because it is rare and hard to see, or because you can count on seeing them at your feeders? Or maybe it’s becuase of their song? (Wow, I never even touched on the voices of the cool little birds – but honestly that is a while blog entry of it’s own!) Maybe it doesn’t even have the word “sparrow” in it’s name. Towhees are pretty cool birds with some brilliant plumage, and yes they are in the sparrow family. Or maybe the wide variety of juncos? (Have you ever seen a Yellow-eyed Junco – they look almost evil – very cool!)
So come on – fill that “share your thoughts” box below with your little brown job story!
Harris’ Sparrow in the winter is one of the birds that made the place I grew up special.
Although I can’t complain when the Sharp-tailed Sparrows are just down the road from me in NC. I do love the Ammodromi!
Great shot of that singing Savannah Sparrow!
I have been too lazy or unable to chase the occasional Harris’s Sparrow I hear about…so I guess I can call that my nemesis as well. Though the darn LeConte’s Sparrow in Brooklyn last year that I could not get out of work for really bugged me as well.
My favorite sparrow (this week) is the Swamp Sparrow. They are just plain pretty.
Breeding swamp sparrows are indeed gorgeous. But I have to say that my favorite is still the one that taught me to love sparrows. I was just getting into birding and (amazingly) didn’t even know such a thing as a white-throated sparrow existed. But one day while out walking around the local park, I spotted a bird with a little flash of yellow on his head. I peered into the conifer tree with my camera, and amazingly he allowed me to get off one of my bird favorite photos of all time. I had no idea a sparrow could be so beautiful, but now I know better. I’ve been a bit of a sparrow junkie ever since. If it weren’t for that sentimental value, I might go with a Harris’ sparrow. And if I wasn’t limiting myself to North America, I might go with the Rufous-collared. What can I say? I love me some Zonotrichia.
Only Harris’ Sparrow I’ve seen was in the middle of Athens, GA of all places (the quintessential college town), at an assisted living facility.
But my favorite is a hard pick. Black-throated is fantastic looking. Henslow’s was surprisingly handsome. Sage Sparrow is very striking. Or I could go with the old standby – Chipping Sparrow, which has been a favorite since childhood.
Too many choices!
Great post Christopher, So nice to see you here as well as your blog, Grasshopper sparrow is still my nemesis bird….Think I need to go out birding with you again!
American Tree Sparrow is my nemesis. They are around all the places I live and travel, but I never seem to pick them out. This winter I hope is my time to break the curse.
Harris is not exactly a Nemesis, but a sparrow I missed through the cultural differences between the US and Germany.
During a 4-week-long birding trip throughout Ontario and Michigan in May 2005, I signed up at the Michigan birders listserv as I knew the motels we were staying at had (free) internet.
Turns out that all the motels had free internet ACCESS but no computers for their guests to use and as a German who back then was still used to “Internet Cafes” where you could use computers installed there instead of bringing your own, I had left my laptop at home.
It was a great trip and I am not complaining, but I was a bit disappointed when I read my emails back in Germany after the trip and learned that a Harris’s Sparrow had been staying at a feeder near Ann Arbor (where I was stationed) during my entire stay there – without me knowing about it.
Great post, by the way. I love sparrows, probably as the different shades of brown are all I get here in Germany and I am therefore so accustomed to their appearance that they make me feel at home and comfortable whereever I see them.
In Christian art, the sparrow symbolizes God’s concern for the most insignificant living things and the dove represents the Holy Spirit and the virtues of peace, meekness and purity.
Nice post, that is a very nice collection of sparrows.
Nice gallery of sparrows! My nemesis is the Lincoln’s sparrow. I read in other birder’s post of sighting any number of Lincoln’s sparrows but when I go to the same place, all I see are song sparrows, Savannah sparrows and maybe swamp sparrows! Sometimes I think they are putting me on:-) Well, maybe next year.
Nice job Christopher, put me down for the Harris’s too.
Hi Christopher. I found your piece on Autumn sparrows – nice job! – when I googled Harris’ Sparrow New England to find if anyone else had seen one the last few days in NE. We had what we’re pretty sure was a Harris’ Sparrow under our feeder this morning.