Today’s thoughts are from Matt Medler, BSI Science Coordinator.
Dr. Jeff Wells will be appearing on two radio talk shows next week. Click for more info.
Here in the Albany area and across most of “upstate” New York, the American Robin is often thought of as the classic symbol of springtimeâ€”when robins arrive back in the area, it is a sure sign that spring is also on its way. The only problem with this is that American Robins are never completely gone from our area during the winter months. They might be a little harder to find, but they are still here, and usually in good numbers. In fact, each year on Albany-area Christmas Bird Counts, hundreds to thousands of American Robins are tallied by observers during late December and early January.
As a replacement for the official sign of spring here in the Northeast, I would like to instead nominate the Fox Sparrow. This large, colorful sparrow is absent from most of New York and northern New England during the dead of winter, but when the calendar changes to March, the first Fox Sparrows of the year appear like clockwork, albeit without the fanfare associated with American Robins or Red-winged Blackbirds. Sure enough, despite the miserable weather across much of the Northeast recently, Fox Sparrows were reported for the first time from central and eastern New York and southern Vermont during the first 10 days of March.
Credit Glen Tepke
For many birders, the Fox Sparrow ranks among their favorite sparrows, and after seeing and hearing one, it is easy to understand why. The form seen here in the eastern U.S., known as the Red Fox Sparrow, has reddish upperparts and large rufous spots across the breast. This reddish coloration, together with the species’ large size, makes it easy to distinguish from the many other sometimes-indistinguishable sparrows. And, as an added bonus, Red Fox Sparrows have a beautiful song, described by David Sibley as the “richest and most melodious of all sparrows.”
I was fortunate to spend some time in the Boreal Forest of QuÃ©bec last summer, and the loud, ringing songs of Fox Sparrows were one of the signature sounds of my trip. Many of the other common species seen and heard on the trip, such as Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Gray Jay, and White-throated Sparrow, breed in boreal areas of New York’s Adirondack region, and are familiar species to me. However, when I heard my first Fox Sparrow song and then located the big red sparrow belting it out from the top of a shrub, I knew that I was in a different placeâ€”I was really in the Boreal Forest region.
The Fox Sparrow species is currently defined as being made up of four different identifiable groups or forms–Red, Sooty, Slate-colored, and Thick-billedâ€”that differ in coloration, structure, genetics, and song. Red Fox Sparrow is the most widespread group, breeding across much of Canada and Alaska, while the other groups have more restricted ranges in western North America. Overall, 58% of the entire Fox Sparrow population breeds in the Boreal, but the Red Fox Sparrow is heavily dependent on the region, with its breeding range almost perfectly matching a map of North America’s Boreal Forest region.
As much as I enjoy Fox Sparrows (and probably precisely because I enjoy them so much), I have to admit to being a bit frustrated by them. My frustration stems from the fact that in New York, the species only winters in the southeastern portion of the state (New York City and neighboring areas). So, despite the fact that other Boreal sparrow species like Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow winter across much of New York, and the fact that Fox Sparrow is bigger than these two species and should therefore be better able to withstand cold upstate New York winters, observers across most of New York have to be content with seeing Fox Sparrows just on spring and fall migration. I’ve tried to come up with reasons why Fox Sparrows don’t winter farther north, and the best explanation that I can think of is that because they prefer to forage by double-scratching for invertebrates in leaf litter, they tend to winter farther south, where there is less likely to be snow cover. This explanation would be quite satisfactory except for the original point of this entryâ€”Fox Sparrows are one of the very first songbirds to migrate north each “spring.” They actually move northward in New York in late winter, when there can still be plenty of snow on the ground. This means that earlier-migrating individuals are likely to arrive back on their Boreal breeding grounds some time in late March or early April. I have not been to the Boreal at this time, but I fully imagine that it is still a cold and snow-covered place in early April and beyond.
I’ve given up trying to understand the migratory behavior of Fox Sparrows, and am instead going to turn my attention to getting out in the field to see this species in the coming weeks. The Red Fox Sparrow winters in the southeastern U.S. and migrates northward through much of the eastern half of the country, so it is a bird that many people can see. While it sometimes appears at birdfeeders (or more accurately, under birdfeeders) during migration, this Boreal beauty is typically found on the ground in brushy areas, where it can often be located by its vigorous double-scratching feeding technique. Fox Sparrows can also be heard singing on migration, so be sure to take a listen to the song at the Boreal Bird Guide before going afield in search of one.
BSI Senior Scientist Jeff Wells will be appearing on the “Sound Ecology” radio show on WMPG in Portland, ME on Wednesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m. Jeff will be talking about his new book, “Birder’s Conservation Handbook,” as well as issues related to Boreal Forest conservation. For those who don’t live in the Portland listening area, WMPG has live streaming of its programs at its web site: www.wmpg.org
Later that same week, Jeff will be appearing at the 24th annual meeting of the Connecticut Ornithological Association (COA), in Middletown, CT. He will be speaking from 10:55 to 11:55 a.m. on Saturday, March 29. For more information about the COA meeting, visit www.ctbirding.org