To me, Fox Sparrows are a special challenge, even though they are big, boldly colored, and easy to ID for a sparrow. We typically only see them here during migration because they breed in the boreal forest across Canada and they winter in the southeastern US. That narrows the time frame to see them. Their prefered habitat is brushy woods where they hide pretty well, and I don’t get to those places enough during that window. The folks who have the best luck live next to such habitat and set up a bird feeder which spills seed on the ground. There a Fox Sparrow will scratch as it eats, sometimes becoming hidden in a small crater. I haven’t tried such a feeding station in my yard, as it would be awkward to watch from the house. Perhaps I should, because once I did see a Fox Sparrow in my yard. That was after a heavy April snowfall. The bird was resting in my weed-filled vineyard, but it was probably present because of my next-door neighbor’s feeding station, which is annoyingly difficult for me to monitor.
This year the opportunity to see a Fox Sparrow was greatly expanded when Tom Schulenberg found one on New Year’s Day as part of the Christmas Bird Count. It was near Freese Road in brushy habitat by the pond at the Liddell Lab. Over the next few days several other people saw it, but I failed. That lab has many beehives around it, but it also has a bird feeder next ot brushy, damp habitat contiguous to woods. I have seen a Fox Sparrow at that feeding station - in the usual season - several times over the years. During the holiday break the feeder was empty, but afterward it was maintained again, and people started finding Tom’s Fox Sparrow below the feeder and in the immediately adjacent brush. This would make it much easier to see, I thought. I tried again and failed. Then the long holiday weekend came, the feeder was empty, and so was the adjacent brush. I went back on the following Tuesday but the conditions remained the same: no food, no birds. Perhaps the guy who works there and fills the feeder took the whole week off! I went back early on Saturday and found the feeders and bushes empty again. But this time I came equipped with a gallon jar full of black oil sunflower seeds. I filled the dang feeder myself, kicked enough snow off the ground that I’d be able to see the area from a distance, poured some extra seed on the ground, and left for the rest of the morning to let the local birds consider the situation. During the interval I went to the Lab of O feeder garden and had wonderful views of another bird we typically only see in migration, a Rusty Blackbird, among numerous other birds. That’s a multi-trophic-level bird feeder, with an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk who had eaten a male Northern Cardinal the day before, the same day the Rusty Blackbird was discovered, but the Sharp-shin was not successful (yet) when I saw it. I think it made at least 3 passes while I was present. There was also an adult Cooper’s Hawk perched over the Wilson Trail North. It not only tolerated the members of the Saturday morning bird walk viewing it through my scope, it stayed put while we walked below it and than scoped it from the other side as well. Perhaps it is a year-round resident of Sapsucker Woods, and recognizes that the people on the trails harmless, so it’s a waste of a bird's time and energy to keep fleeing the people. There’s a Red-tailed Hawk like that at the Lab also, which tends to sit on lampposts around the parking lot. But I digress. I returned to Liddell and had great looks at the Fox Sparrow. I understand that several other people saw it as well that afternoon and today too. I now recommend that a large mouse-proof container of birdseed be added to every birder’s car kit, along with the field guide and binoculars. Some folks have tried setting up feeders in places like Summerhill State Forest. I first heard about Nelson’s Sparrow (then called Sharp-tailed Sparrow) at Treman State Marine Park when Jeff Wells saw one by putting out seed. I know that back in the day Arthur Allen kept feeders in Renwick Wildwood. As I drive around I see many empty bird feeders at people’s houses and I am tempted to fill them. Or it might be a nice gesture to donate birdseed to the people who maintain especially productive feeders. But about this out-of-season Fox Sparrow at the Liddell Lab. I noticed in Gary Kohlenberg’s eBird report that it was not as red as he expected. I, too, found that to be the case. Sibley shows the Red Fox Sparrow, which inhabits eastern North America as well as Canada and Alaska north and east of the Rockies, to have all bright rusty red streaks and spots below, including the malar stripes and the big central breast spot. Not so on this bird, whose central spot is dark brown and whose other spots and streaks form an interesting gradation from small dark brown spots low on the sides, to more chestnut brown farther up the sides to slightly redder brown on the upper sides. None of the underside streaking is the bright rufous which Sibley shows for the Red type, but nor is it all dark brown as Sibley shows for the “Slate-colored” type from the interior west. On the other hand the pattern above seems to have characteristics of the Red type. It has the rufous pattern on the gray cheek and the streaked central back, both of which western birds lack. But the gray of the upper back came down and covered the bird’s shoulder/wrist like western types, although the greater coverts and wing were rufous. Maybe the bird’s back was just fluffed up, and maybe the color below is normal variation, and maybe Sibley over-generalized or overstated the red on the Red Fox Sparrow, but maybe this is a Red x Slate-colored intergrade. I hope other folks who know more about this stuff will take a close look at the bird and offer an opinion. —Dave Nutter -- Cayugabirds-L List Info: http://www.NortheastBirding.com/CayugabirdsWELCOME http://www.NortheastBirding.com/CayugabirdsRULES http://www.NortheastBirding.com/CayugabirdsSubscribeConfigurationLeave.htm ARCHIVES: 1) http://firstname.lastname@example.org/maillist.html 2) http://www.surfbirds.com/birdingmail/Group/Cayugabirds 3) http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/CAYU.html Please submit your observations to eBird: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/ --