Sparrows displace warblers with the arrival of October

11:05 am | October 18, 2011

With the arrival of October, the frantic pace of migration has slowed and shifted. I am still seeing warblers, but with decreasing frequency. Other birds, such as sparrows, have now begun to make fall appearances. Some of the sparrows are only migrating through the region while others will take up winter residence.

On Oct. 2, I still noticed a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visiting the feeders and perching on prominent branches. I also observed three warblers: Tennessee, female Black-throated Blue and, new for fall, a male Common Yellowthroat.

A total of seven Gray Catbirds enjoying poke berries on Oct. 3 provided an impressive observation. I also had a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and six warblers: Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula and Black-throated Blue. A steady breeze made birding conditions a bit brisk, and I noted that the warblers seemed to be feeding and foraging frantically, probably as insurance against another cold night.

On Oct. 5, I observed two new birds for fall, neither of them warblers. I watched a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the hawthorns at the creek and found a Swamp Sparrow in the blue asters around the fish pond. A few warblers — Magnolia and Tennessee — were still present. Other migrants I detected in the yard on that evening included Gray Catbird and a couple of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

I found another new bird for fall on Oct. 6, and again it was one of the many sparrows native to North America. I had an immature White-crowned Sparrow feeding on the ground, loosely associating with the resident Eastern Towhees. Only one warbler, a single Tennessee Warbler, put in an appearance. Some birds that had not shown up for a few days showed up as well, including Brown Thrasher and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird paid a visit to the sugar water feeder.

The other surprise was a pair of Wood Ducks flying over. I think they would have landed on the pond, but they saw me and were spooked.

On Oct. 7, I discovered the first White-throated Sparrow I have seen this fall. It’s ever-so-slightly early for these sparrows to be returning. So, that was three sparrows in three days, starting with the Swamp Sparrow on Wednesday and the White-crowned on Thursday. But, that wasn’t all. I also observed a new fall warbler, an Ovenbird, which was showing up ever-so-slightly late. I watched four other warblers as well: Cape May, Black-throated Green, Tennessee and Magnolia. Other migrants I saw that evening included Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Brown Thrasher. Then, at dusk, an Eastern Screech-owl began calling, providing a nice end to the work week.

A Northern Mockingbird represented a new fall arrival on Oct. 9. I know mockingbirds are common, but I never get visits from these birds in spring and summer. They will often spend the winter months, however, so I will keep watch and see if this one takes up residence. Although I saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Saturday, Oct. 8, I didn’t see one the following day. Birds that were present on Sunday, Oct. 9, included Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Magnolia Warbler, Eastern Phoebe and a Swamp Sparrow at the fish pond.

I counted several White-throated Sparrows in the evening on Oct. 10, as well as another sure sign of the shifting season: a Yellow-rumped Warbler. While most warblers are gradually leaving the region to spend the winter much farther south, Yellow-rumped Warblers actually migrate into Northeast Tennessee to spend the winter months. When Yellow-rumped Warblers arrive, that’s usually a good signal that warbler migration is winding down. Still, I managed to find a Magnolia Warbler on both Oct. 10 and 11. I also found a Blue-headed Vireo in the yard on Oct. 11 after getting home from work.

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The sparrows I observed in early October represented some of the better findings in the past couple of weeks.

The White-throated Sparrows become regular visitors to my feeders during the winter season, especially during extended snowstorms when they seek out sunflower seeds and other offerings.

The Swamp Sparrow belongs to the genus of sparrows known as Melospiza, which also includes the more familiar Song Sparrow and the locally uncommon Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrows are aptly named, preferring habitat near water. They breed across much of eastern North America and central Canada, usually favoring wetlands, including brackish marshes. In migration, however, they are less tied to water and can be found in any weedy or brushy field. Damp pastures or meadows are even more attractive, but not essential for finding these sparrows.

Over the years, I have found Swamp Sparrows in many locations throughout the region. The bogs in Shady Valley in Johnson County are a reliable location to find these sparrows.

Swamp Sparrows are both shy and curious. The slightest movement can send them deeper into cover, but sometimes producing a squeaking noise is enough to lure them back into sight. The bird that then materializes in binoculars will show an unstriped gray chest, a reddish cap and wings, whitish throat and belly and gray face and sides of neck, all combining to provide a lesson in noticing subtle details.

Sparrows have long frustrated many new birders, who lump them together under the term “Little Brown Birds.” In truth, that description has some merit, but with some practice, subtle details can take on important meaning in identifying these birds.

The White-crowned Sparrow is probably one of the most readily identifiable sparrows in the region. The feature that gives this bird its common name — a head pattern of white and black stripes for adults and brown and tan stripes for immature birds — makes it almost unmistakable.

The White-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow, reaching a length of about seven inches. They have a gray face and upper breast, white wing bars and a bill that is usually pink or yellow in color. They are similar in appearance to the White-throated Sparrow, but lack the prominent white throat patch of their relative.

The White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows belong to the genus Zonotrichia, which includes Harris’s Sparrow, Rufous-collared Sparrow and Golden-crowned Sparrow.

The White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows are fairly widespread. On a trip to Utah in 2003, I saw White-crowned Sparrows in amazing numbers almost every place I visited around Salt Lake City. In Northeast Tennessee, they are fairly uncommon, but experienced birders know good locations for seeking out these handsome sparrows.

Over the years, I have found these sparrows at fields in the Lynn Valley community in Elizabethton and at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake.

By November, White-throated Sparrows are common at any backyard feeder. They are also present along the walking trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. They will remain common birds in the region until late April and early May, when they depart for breeding farther north in central Canada and New England.

In addition to the white throat, this sparrow also shows a splash of color — not common in most of our “little brown birds” — that shows up as two dots of yellow above the eyes at the base of the bill.

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To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I am also on Facebook.

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