The Bird Meme: Day 26

Day 26: A bird that changed your opinion about something

Savannah Sparrow

If you've read Along Those Lines, you may recall the story of my struggle to accurately gauge my birding skills when I was signing up for the Spring Field Ornithology course at Cornell. Given the three available categories--Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert--I opted to list myself in the Intermediate column. And if you recall that I was at the time hanging out with people like Tim Gallagher, Steve Kress, and Kevin McGowan, you'll probably agree with me that I took the correct option.

Still, even given my tendency to hang out with people who are far better birders than I, every once in a while I manage to do something to alter my opinion of my own skills. Sometimes I can take credit for simply noticing something that the rest of the group did not--a bird in the road far, far ahead of our bus on the SFO trip to Cape May, for example. It turned out to be a Turkey Vulture, nothing special, but I was still rather pleased to spot it before Steve Kress was even aware it was there.

To make a bigger shift in my self-image, however, requires more than open eyes; it requires open eyes and a healthy dollop of intuition. Such was the case near the end of April, when I accompanied my colleague Lee Bristow down to the Williamsburg area to help him with a breeding bird count. It was a perfect day for birding, and when we met a pair of Lee's old friends at a strip mall just after sunrise, I could tell that we were in for a productive day. 

Lee is an ear birder by preference, and on this occasion he hadn't even bothered to bring a pair of binoculars; instead, he simply wandered around announcing the name of whatever he heard, allowing the rest of us to track it down and log it. It was a remarkably effective system, I have to say, because we were jotting down species at a furious rate all through the early morning, even though much of the habitat didn't seem promising: lots and lots of post-industrial landscape gone to weeds and scrub, but full of spring breeders: Blue Grosbeak, Great Crested Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Field Sparrow, you name it.

At one point we boarded the cars and headed through the remnants of an old outlet center for pottery, one where the long driveway to the main road was lined with hedges, and we began spotting a lot of activity in the shrubs: a White-eyed Vireo here, a Common Yellowthroat there, so we were taking it fairly slowly. I was in Lee's passenger seat, window down, and off in the hedge I noticed a small, streaky sparrow. 

We had already logged a number of Song Sparrows, and there was no good reason for me to assume this bird was anything else, but nonetheless, I asked Lee to stop while I brought my binoculars up. Yeah, there it was, not too deep into the leaves, but not giving me the clearest look at its field marks, either. I could see streaky sides, a pinkish bill, reddish wings, strong lines on the side of its head... nothing that precluded SoSp, but nothing I could really rest a different ID on. I turned my attention to the legs--pink--and waited to get a glimpse of its breast, which finally revealed the hint of a darkish spot. 

By now, everything I knew about Song Sparrows, and everything I could see in my field guide, was telling me to make the call and move on; we had plenty of territory to cover yet, and this was just one rather drab bird. But something kept nagging at me, an element of posture or plumage that I couldn't quite reconcile with the obvious bird. I kept looking for something, and finally, with a slight shift on the part of the bird's perch, I had it: a look at its tail.

Which was notched.

Song Sparrows have all of the field marks I've mentioned above, but their tails are long and rounded. That meant this had to be something else. And as it gradually moved into better view and revealed a slight yellowish cast to its head, the bird at long last announced its identity to us: Savannah Sparrow. It's not a bird I've seen often, but with patience, careful consideration of the field marks, and an unusual willingness to trust my instincts as a birder, I had brought in my first of 2017. And when Lee and his friends commended me for the check on our list, I felt even more like a Real Birder.

Better still, by stopping for the Savannah, we'd left ourselves in a position to look at a second unusual visitor: the first White-crowned Sparrow I'd seen in several years.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I consider the Savannah Sparrow a bird that can help me reassess my opinions. It has little effect on my thinking when it comes to music or politics, but if it keeps me out in the field with a pair of binoculars, it's a change I welcome.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 17, 2017 8:40 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 25 was the previous entry in this blog.

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