Sunday, March 13, 2016

Settling in...

Song Sparrow

The first wave of spring migrants are beginning to settle in. A week ago, newly arrived Song Sparrows were foraging in tight flocks along the North Fork Trail, but now they've spread out into their own territories. Like many other birds, Song Sparrows familiarize themselves with their neighbor's songs.

There's a sophisticated process of song matching that goes on throughout the day and during the entire breeding season. Should a stranger enter the village, so to speak, the males will quiz the intruder carefully. It may all sound the same to our ears, but to the sparrows there's a conversation going on. Though there's a great deal of variation, their songs are similar enough for us to identify the species. But every once in a while a tricky Song Sparrow might throw off a birder.

Sometimes I enjoy just sitting and listening to birdsongs with my eyes closed and pick through the avian choir, filtering to specific layers or voices. The mix of song defines the season and pace of migration. If you recorded even just a few minutes of birdsong in a given area, an experienced birder could likely guess the time of year down to the week.

Red-winged Blackbird

The seasonal repetition is comforting. In a way it makes me feel like everything isn't as messed up as I know it is. From just a few miles from where I live I can experience part of a natural phenomenon that's been going on for tens of thousands of years, and probably even a lot longer than that. Naturally, the scale we observe today is probably a shadow of its former glory, but it's still pretty amazing.

Sandhill Crane

A pair of Sandhill Cranes stroll by and so I follow one of them with my spotting scope. This is what it looks like today, and what it did 2.5 million years ago. Well, except for the neatly mowed grass! Anyway, that's the age of the oldest unequivocal Sandhill Crane fossil, but they existed even further back in deep time. What other species did they once share the grasslands with? What were our early ancestors doing at the time? Probably banging rocks together somewhere in Africa.

But look how far we've come. Birding is a form of Nature study, and that study can inform us of our place in the grand scheme of things. Feelings of exhilaration and humility are rendered through this basic knowledge. To be able to experience and understand this is a big part of what makes us human. And the interesting thing is that sometimes we can't help see ourselves when we spend time watching birds.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Mar 12, 2016 7:00 AM - 9:45 AM
39 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Green-winged Teal
Hooded Merganser
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell


  1. I didn't see any Meadowlarks at Pheasant Branch this weekend but enjoyed the many Song Sparrows that were singing as you describe. I am making an effort to pay more attention to birdsong this year and I also noted the great variation in the sparrows songs. Watched a pair of courting Killdeer, too which was great. Beautiful photos! Thanks, again.