Speaking of Nature: Seasonal fox sparrow sightings short but sweet

  • The fox sparrow is about 7 inches long and has body feathers that are described as being red. Note the large blotches of red feathers on the otherwise white breast. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • At about 6 inches long, the song sparrow is marked with dark brown feathers. Note the numerous streaks of brown on the cream-colored breast of the song sparrow. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 4/15/2019 6:00:24 AM

One of the beautiful things about living on planet Earth is the cycle of the seasons that marks the passage of time. Up here in the north it’s cold for part of the year, warm for part of the year, and there are seasons of transition from one extreme to the next. Spring is a season of transition from cold to warm, and it is perhaps the most uplifting of the seasons that we experience because we get to see the return of life to the landscape.

This is a rather poetic statement for sure. Life is never really gone during the winter. The plants with thin, delicate leaves will shed those leaves in the autumn and go into a long period of dormancy during the winter. They are all still very much alive, but they are “sleeping” while they wait for conditions to turn in their favor. Other plants survive as seeds, simply waiting for warm weather to give them a chance to wake up and grow. Life is everywhere, it’s just not so obvious.

In the Northeast, we do not experience any outstanding migration of mammals, but in the bird world there is a stupendous change that occurs in the springtime. Millions of birds that fled to the South to avoid the northern winter will flood back as soon as conditions turn favorable once more. One can imagine an ocean of birds resting on the face of the Earth, and slowly shifting from high tide to low tide and back again. This cycle of the tides occurs once a year, and we’re starting to experience the tide coming in.

The best thing about the cycle of the avian tides is the fact that it’s different from one year to the next. Most of the species are the same, but they arrive in different orders and they provide a bountiful source of entertainment for anyone who chooses to pay attention. We have entered a period of accelerating species arrivals and for the first time in many years, I have caught a rare and wonderful sighting of a species that usually passes through without being noticed. The species I’m referring to is the fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca).

I am positively stunned by the fact that I haven’t laid eyes on a fox sparrow since October of 2010. That seems impossible, but my records are complete. Somehow I’ve managed to simultaneously keep track of time and lose track of time, if that makes any sense at all. Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time to capture my best digital photos of this beautiful species last weekend.

Here in Massachusetts, we find ourselves living in the area that would be described as the northernmost limit of the fox sparrow’s winter range, but in the winter months it is only the eastern half of the state that might have them. I say “might” because the bird is described as rare and sporadic (Mass Audubon’s lowest abundance rating) up to “very infrequent.” In mid-March, the birds jump up another level to “occasional,” and in the beginning of April, they are promoted once again to “uncommon.” These birds are thin on the ground, for sure.

Fox sparrows breed in the far north, with the northern limit of their breeding range basically being defined by the Arctic Circle. The southern half of Canada is devoid of fox sparrows during the breeding season, but the northern portion of the country has a band of fox sparrow habitat that stretches from Newfoundland all the way to Alaska’s coastline. Why they travel that far north I cannot say.

Fox sparrows build standard “cup” nests either on the ground or low in trees. It is worth noting that the word “probably” keeps popping up in the descriptions of the fox sparrow. The female “probably” selects the nest sight and she “probably” builds the nest herself. She is definitely the only one to incubate the eggs. The male, meanwhile, is a pugnacious defender of his territory, often showing aggression toward other species.

The fox sparrow is only slightly larger than the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), which is a much more common species in our area. Both birds are similar in shape, but their coloration can be quite different. I happened to see a red fox sparrow, and that is certainly what initially grabbed my attention with the bird I managed to photograph. Additionally, the song sparrow has patches of gray feathers on the side of the head, whereas the fox sparrow’s feathers show a hint of slate blue. Trust me when I say that this is a huge difference to a birder.

There is the slightest of chances that the fox sparrows might still be here. Their time here is so limited that even the best preparation may still be inadequate to coincide with their appearance. If you have any time at all today, I would encourage you to get outside with some binoculars and scrutinize any small sparrowy bird. If you are lucky enough to spot a fox sparrow, rejoice. You may not see one again for 10 years.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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