Sparrows have arrived in our area in full force. Beginning and casual birders tend to shy away from sparrows, considering them to be too hard to identify.
They seem to be all brown, and not all that exciting to see. But I like sparrows. With a good look all species are beautifully marked with complex combinations of brown, reddish, buff, and even some orangey hues. They can be a challenge to locate too; many are skulkers that are very difficult to find without tromping through damp, weedy fields and brushy edges.
I took a morning recently to look for newly arrived sparrows in southeastern portions of Mecklenburg County. It’s a game birders play with themselves; a personal challenge to locate as many species within a taxonomic group during a day.
I chose Ezzell Farm in Mint Hill, a county-owned property that has been productive for large numbers of sparrows in the past. As soon as I exited my vehicle I was hearing the whistled songs of white-throated sparrows.
Near the chain-link fence surrounding the community garden two sparrows flushed from the short grass and perched up for good views. One was a common savannah sparrow but the other was larger with a bold eye ring. It was a vesper sparrow, one of the more uncommon species that I was hoping to find. Nice find!
More sparrows began rising out of the taller grass; a mixed flock of chipping sparrows and field sparrows. Under a grove of large oaks a few dark-eyed juncos flew away twittering in their characteristic way. Yes, juncos count as sparrows. So do towhees, and one sounded off from a pokeweed patch nearby.
At the pond edge a sharp high pitched call from a patch of cattails gave away the presence of a swamp sparrow, one of the skulkers. Sharing the same patch was a bolder song sparrow, one of the two most common sparrows to winter in our area along with the white-throated.
I ended the day with eight sparrow species, with the vesper being the only uncommon one. Fox sparrows had not arrived yet and white-crowned sparrows eluded me. I was really hoping for Lincoln’s sparrow too but it wasn’t to be. Maybe I’ll take the Sparrow Challenge again in a couple of weeks.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com