April 26, 2018
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A visit from an old friend: the sparrow

By Chris Corio, Special to the News

The calls reached me across the snowy meadow, sweet little notes that sounded as if they were drifting through the air from different directions. It was hard to tell if they were coming from the trees to the left of me or from a thicket of shrubs straight ahead.

It was both, as it turned out. As a cross-country skier passed the thicket, I saw several small birds fly up into the trees, joining those already there. Intent on identifying them, I almost missed the juvenile red-tailed hawk that flew low over the meadow with a half-eaten meal in its talons. I got the glasses on it and noted its distended crop (an expandable pouch in the esophagus that temporarily stores and softens food), as well as its prey, which looked to be a squirrel, although it was hard to tell for sure. The raptor flew to the privacy of close-growing trees to finish its meal.

I approached the area to which I had seen the small birds fly, trying as best I could to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. Although the snow’s surface was not crusted over, it seemed my snowshoes were making way too much noise. I needn’t have worried; the birds, all perched high in a group of tall ash trees (at least, that’s what I thought they were — I’m still learning winter tree identification), apparently felt safe enough to keep up a steady conversation among themselves. Their dulcet call notes were a delight to hear.

My interest was piqued; I thought they were some type of sparrow, but I wasn’t sure. I focused my binoculars upward, and although the light was wrong (the birds showed up as little more than dusky silhouettes against the sky), and the birds were mostly facing away from me, I was able to get a clear view of one as it turned in my direction. The small, dark “button” in the center of its otherwise unmarked chest was a definitive clue, but I hoped to get a closer look to be sure.

So I stood there for awhile, hoping the birds would deem it safe enough to return to the thicket of shrubs near me. I was in luck; soon a brave scout fluttered down and began foraging in the shrubs. Through the maze of twigs and branchlets, I got a few seconds’ clear view of the bird, and a second mark clinched the bird’s ID: its bi-colored bill, with a black upper mandible and yellow lower mandible, made this an American tree sparrow.

Soon, the scout was joined by its companions as they slowly trickled down into the thicket, and I was able to get better looks. They really are beautiful sparrows: their upper-body feathers, a lovely mix of warm sienna, light buff and black, and set off by two white wing bars, are sharply contrasted by their clean grayish-white underbody feathers with the smart black button right in the center of their chests. Add to this their sweet voices, and these birds are a treat to find.

Actually, American tree sparrows are a treat to see if only because they are strictly winter visitors. They breed in the far north, near or above tree line on the Arctic tundra. The first time I’d seen them had been during the Orono Christmas Bird Count several years ago; it so happens I’ve just not spotted them much since then, so seeing them on this beautiful winter day was akin to visiting with old friends.

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