Speaking of Nature: Swamped with good fortune — another great day in the thinking chair

  • The song sparrow's plumage is dominated by chocolate-brown stripes and streaks against a creamy-white background. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • In contrast, the swamp sparrow's plumage has notes of cinnamon against a gray background with black highlights here and there. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 6/24/2022 8:56:35 AM
Modified: 6/24/2022 8:54:13 AM

It was one of those mornings that seemed right from the very start. I woke up at my normal insanely-early teacher wakeup time and decided that if I could pull myself together and go to work at this hour, then I could certainly pull myself together and get outside. So, I reset my alarm for 5:45 a.m. (because insanely-early teacher wakeup time is at 4:15 a.m.) and went back to bed. This, I thought, was a great way to start a day.

My inner clock ended up waking me up at 5:40 a.m. and I jumped out of bed. I quickly saw to all of the normal morning ablutions (brush hair and comb teeth), but decided to forego a pot of coffee. Summer was approaching and I wanted to embrace the change in my routine associated with my imminent, mandatory 2-month furlough. So, instead of a travel mug full of coffee I grabbed my portable speaker and headed down to the Thinking Chair that sits at the edge of my meadow.

I arrived there by about 6:10 a.m. and it was simply gorgeous. The temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the air was dead calm. The sun was rising in a clear sky and the conditions were absolutely perfect for birding and photography. Even before I sat down I saw that there were already two black-capped chickadees waiting for me. I put out some seed on the small platform that I had placed about 15 feet from the chair and then I sat down and put a small amount of seed on the top of my hat. In less than 10 minutes I had chickadees landing on my head for breakfast.

The next bird to arrive was a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Initially shy back in April, the song sparrows have also decided that my presence is not only harmless, but also a wonderful indication that some food is suddenly available. The bird was only about 15 feet away from me and contentedly munching away on mixed seed while I was writing on my small notepad and lifting my camera. This bird was very comfortable in my presence and the photo I share with you today shows that.

So there I was, ensconced in birds and loving every minute of it, when I heard a song that I couldn’t immediately identify. So I stopped everything I was doing to give my full attention to what I had just heard. I even ignored the little sprinkle of seeds that was falling down around me as one of the chickadees picked up and then rejected one seed after another from atop my head. I heard the mystery song again and realized that I recognized the song, but simply hadn’t expected it. Could this really be happening?

This is when the portable speaker came in handy. Using my phone I was able to pull up a recording of the same bird and when I played the song I almost instantly saw a small brown projectile come from the same direction that the song had come from. That was gratifying confirmation that my identification of the singing bird had been correct and I very quickly found myself being given the evil eye by a highly agitated swamp sparrow (Melospizageorgiana).

This is a species that I have occasionally seen at my feeders in the wintertime, but this is the first time that I have identified a singing male in the breeding season. Part of my confusion was the fact that there is nothing on my property that could be called a swamp, or even a marsh. This seems not to have bothered the bird, however, because the wet meadow that dominates the southern end of my landholding is apparently wet enough.

I have provided two photos with this column so that a close comparison of the features of the head can be made for the song sparrow and the swamp sparrow. As you can see, the differences are quite subtle, but such is the nature of birdwatching and bird identification. The song sparrow has a two-tone marking scheme that uses a light, creamy white and dark chocolate-brown, whereas the swamp sparrow has more hints of cinnamon and feathers about the face, neck and breast that are decidedly gray in color. The swamp sparrow also has subtle black highlights here and there. You will also see that there is far less streaking on the body feathers of the swamp sparrow, but there was a leaf between my camera and the bird, which explains that big swath of yellow-green in the photo.

The song sparrow’s habitat is described as thickets, brush, marshes and gardens, whereas the swamp sparrows preferred habitat is freshwater marshes with sedges, grasses, cattails and swampy thickets. It is obvious that these very closely related species (in the same genus) both found my wet meadow to their liking. It was also obvious that the song sparrows were quite intolerant of the swamp sparrow when he came over to argue with me. When nesting territories are carved out of the landscape there is great animosity between competing neighbors. I expect the swamp sparrow’s movement into the corner of the meadow where I was sitting was akin to the USS Enterprise entering the Neutral Zone. He knew he was in for it, but he could not ignore the possible intrusion of a new swamp sparrow in the meadow.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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