Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mid-Winter White Throats

This week marked the meteorological mid-point of winter. Forty-five days of winter under our belts, and forty-five days ahead of us. And now it can get really interesting! At mid-point, the observant naturalist will detect signs that spring is on its way! With deciduous trees and understory winter-bare, marshes bent low by winds and rain, and farm fields at rest, the cold-weather naturalist is sure to see change-a-coming. But it's in the sound of early spring's arriving that I find most fun, especially with kids. Every now and then, an ambitious songster belts out a springtime song of love...

White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Hiking at a local park this week, I was able to identify two passerine (song bird) loudly calling songs usually heard in late winter and throughout the spring. A tufted titmouse cried "Peter! Peter! Peter!" from a brushy edge. A common winter sparrow for the Mid-Atlantic, the white-throated sparrow, sang "Oh, Sweet Can-aaa-daaa!" from a prominent branch. The titmouse was invisible in his gray coat against the gray brush, but the white-throat, his bright yellow lores, smart black eye stripe, and snappy white bib stood out boldly against the dull wet woods. In a few weeks our winter white-throats will be migrating to Canada and the Northeast. Hearing his breeding call in mid-winter was a real treat!

After observing the foraging behavior of the white-throated sparrow,
look carefully for its 'walking' tracks in snow.
Octoraro Reservoir Gamelands, Lancaster County PA

The white-throated sparrow is a great bird for kids to identify on mid-winter hikes. There are plenty around, especially in brushy patches and yards, fun to follow and stalk. Stalking can be done with any species of sparrow, but white-throats seem to enjoy it, keeping just ahead of you, popping up to make sure you are still sneaking along behind them.

Peeking through branches and limbs, young naturalists will learn the art of still hunting: standing in one place long enough for sparrows not to mind your presence. With binoculars, kids can easily observe the field marks of these busy seed-eating birds as they root through grasses and leaves.

If the ground is snowy, be sure to examine the tracks of the white-throated sparrows once the birds have moved on to the next patch. As a ground foraging bird it has a walking track, rather than the side-by-side hopping track of perching birds.

Examine the foraging site for what they were eating. White-throats enjoy the fleshy parts of small fruits and berries, leaving skins and hard seeds for other foragers. A handful of raisins or cranberries thrown on the ground around a feeding station or placed near your still-hunting patch will attract white throats in no time. A good birding friend of mine can lure them to eat raisins out of his hand if he sits still on the ground.

Sparrows can be challenging birds to identify, but in winter our choices in this region are limited to just a few species. Learning a few sparrows well during the winter season when you know to expect and see them often, can help with more difficult identifications later on.

A really nice bird tracking book comes in handy on snowy days:

Elbroch M. and E. Marks (2001) Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species.  Stackpole Books.

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