Speaking of Nature: A sharp lookout — a close call with a song sparrow nest

  • This photo shows how beautifully well hidden the song sparrow's nest was among the flowers and grasses. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • A perfect clutch of pale blue eggs “splattered” with watery brown spots. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Recorder
Published: 7/12/2022 3:57:15 PM
Modified: 7/12/2022 3:54:29 PM

I had every intention of moving on to different taxa of flora and fauna in the month of July, but a very close call with a bird nest brought me back to birds just one column later. As Michael Corleone said, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And this particular quote is no coincidence because by the time you read this column I will be in Sicily with my beautiful wife Susan.

It was the day before I left and I was working on a list of chores. Item #8 on that list simply read, “Mow.” I had to get the lawn down to a manageable level so that it would not be too tall by the time I got back. So, I jumped on to the mower, drove out of the garage and started the process of getting things done. The recent lack of rain made this quite easy because the grass had not grown too long since last I did battle with it, but there was still plenty to do.

Long experience has informed me that it is a good idea to go slow and keep my eyes open while working at this particular chore. A modern riding mower is an extremely deadly machine for any small animals that might be in the grass ahead of you. But equally important is to keep your head on a swivel and constantly scan the grass to either side. On more than one occasion I have seen a meadow vole panic and run toward the mower rather than away from it. So, caution is the name of the game.

While out there on the mower I managed to avoid three meadow voles and one rather large American toad. I also narrowly avoided a patch of maiden pink flowers, which is a good thing because I want them to live long enough to go to seed and replant themselves. When I was done with the yard immediately surrounding the house I turned my attention to the “field” to the west. This is a large area that I mow in patches so that there is always abundance of flowers for the bees and butterflies. While there I checked on the status of one of the nest boxes in the open grass. I tapped on the box several times, but no one emerged. When I opened the box, however, I was given the evil eye by the visibly perturbed female bluebird within. So I closed the box and went on my way.

Finally, I entered an area of the yard that I call the “long boat.” This is a long, elliptical “ring” of unmoweddaylilies, asters, goldenrods and other flowering plants with a central area that is kept short. This offers me plenty of the closeup opportunities that photographers require and this is the very same area where I found a gorgeous garden spider a couple years ago. As I began mowing the middle section of this landscape feature I noticed that the plants were encroaching into the center. So, I gave some thought to knocking down the inner edges a bit, but then a movement caught my eye.

It was clearly a bird, but exactly what kind of bird was unclear. Far more important, however, was the exact spot where this bird first appeared. It was directly in front of the mower and it was perfectly in line with the left front wheel. I cautiously veered to the right, killed the blades and slowly rolled up to the spot where the bird had been. It took me a moment, but all of a sudden I saw a nest. A closer look showed a nest with four beautiful eggs inside.

This was the nest of a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and it was the first that I have found in many years. About two feet off the ground in a small shrub that might have been three feet tall, the nest was surrounded by tall green grasses and was basically invisible to anyone who didn’t know it was there. I decided to leave the area ASAP and resolved to return a few hours later. I wanted a photo for this story, but I was extremely concerned that I not endanger the sparrow, or her nest, in any way.

When I returned about three hours later, I approached from the south and noticed an agitated male nearby. I continued my approach and then saw the face of the female through a gap in the vegetation. I took a photo that perfectly represents how well hidden she was, but another step toward her and she flew off the nest and appeared to be injured. Not falling for that old trick I closed in on the nest and when I lifted some overhanging leaves with my left had I exposed the nest for a quick burst of photos. I retreated as quickly as possible and I doubt I was there for more than 60 seconds, but I got the shots I was looking for.

The gorgeous nest, made of loose grasses, had a perfectly circular cup-shaped interior and the four eggs, pale blue covered with faded splatter spots of brown couldn’t have been more perfect. The baby sparrows that hatch out of these eggs might still be in their nest by the time I return from Sicily, but it all depends on how old the nest is. I might find pink chicks and I might find nothing, but whatever happens I will be happy to know that the birds were allowed to live their lives and narrowly missed a horrible fate. It pays to keep a sharp lookout, even when doing something as mundane as mowing the lawn.

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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