Looking at Song Sparrows

September 20, 2014

I can barely believe my eyes when I drive into the parking lot at the Cape Cod Bird festival headquarters in Barnstable. I have parked next to a car with a bumper sticker that reads, “Do you eBird?” When I walk inside, I am overwhelmed by the multitudes of people who are dressed just like me-a rare occurrence in my everyday life. Everyone is wearing rugged clothing; many are wearing vests with more pockets than I can count. Binoculars are worn like pants- you have them, or in this world you are deemed socially unacceptable. Scopes, field guides, and various pieces of expensive photography equipment are everywhere. Snatches of conversation about phalaropes and jaegers float across the room. Yep, I have reached the motherland.

My first trip is the next morning. I get up at 5:30 AM to be ready to hop on the bus for “3 gardens birding” at 6:30. I am practically bursting with the possibilities of Dicksissels, Connecticut Warblers, and Blue Grosbeaks. By the time we reach the first of the three community gardens in Dennis, I have become a bit concerned. Though everyone is dressed in the kind of appropriate garb that designates one a birder, the conversation that floats through the bus reveals a degree of unfamiliarity with the practice. As we walk through the garden, my concern deepens. The only birds around are Song Sparrows. Most people in the group do not even know that they are Song Sparrows. At least a third do not know how to get them in their binoculars. By the time everyone has seen the Song Sparrow (this one must surely be the most patient of all birds) I have watched grackles, Mourning Doves, Blue Jays and American Robins pass overhead unnoticed. No grosbeaks or Dicksissels to be found. It is with exasperation that I realize I will be spending the next three hours in this manner- essentially, looking at Song Sparrows.

I love looking at all birds, no matter how common or rare. There is something wonderful about getting to know a bird that can be seen over and over again. But as I look at these Song Sparrows, I realize that I have allowed myself to become wrapped up in the exhilaration of finding new species and have been willing to blow by the more common ones. Never have I spent so much time looking at a Song Sparrow-but never have I noticed so much about them. The trip leader tells us to look for characteristic behaviors: they fly up and perch; they are not skulkers like many other sparrows. They pump their tails when they land. They have a fluttery flight trajectory, and a jerkiness to their movements. It is amazing, really. By the time the trip is over, I can tell a Song Sparrow without having to check for field marks. I do anyway, just to be sure. But what would it be like to be able to do this for every bird? 

In the end, we do see other kinds of birds. But the Pine Warbler, kingfisher, and a high-flying Northern Harrier do not stick out nearly as much to me as do those humbling Song Sparrows.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow