Sunday, October 09, 2016

Beautiful Harris's Sparrow!

"There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October."

― Nathaniel Hawthorne

Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

Saturday and Sunday's gorgeous weather more than made up for last weekend's gloomy gray skies. Thankfully, frosty air during the night took out a good portion of the mosquito population. The prairie continues to receive hundreds upon hundreds of migratory songbirds searching for the perfect stopover point to eat and rest; Pheasant Branch Conservancy is that place. In a few days they'll be ready for the next leg of their southward journey.

As I walked down the gravel path from the parking area, I could see a number of sparrows foraging along the trail at the spot just south of the first retention pond. Too far to identify them with binoculars, I took a peek through my spotting scope. There, mingling with the White-crowned Sparrows, was an immature Harris's Sparrow. I quickly snapped a few documentation shots and then moved in closer to try for a better portrait.

Unfortunately, given other trail traffic (joggers, bicyclists, etc.), the sparrows kept retreating to the surrounding vegetation. But it was around this time I received a text from Ryan Treves:

Harris's Sparrow at the Prairie parcel!

This was a little befuddling to me as he was nowhere in sight and I had been on the gravel path since sunrise. Not entirely sure what was going on, I texted him back:

I got it.

Patiently waiting for the sparrows to get another opportunity to forage, I eventually saw Ryan heading in my direction from the end of the gravel path. It turned out he found a Harris's Sparrow at the northwest corner of the prairie. I didn't think the bird would fly 500 yards in that brief span of time, but it wouldn't be impossible. Anyway, we compared photographs and they were definitely two different birds; his Harris's had a prominent black throat and my bird's was white (see my eBird checklist).

Given the situation with increasing trail traffic, I realized I would probably have better luck photographing the Harris's Sparrow that Ryan found on account of it being in a more secluded part of the prairie. Upon arrival, the big sparrow was still at the same spot. I heard it let out a few loud chip notes and zeroed in on its location hidden behind leaves in a row of small trees. I pished a few times. To my astonishment the Harris's popped right out into the open! I had been dreaming of this moment for over a decade and got the portrait of a lifetime.

Harris's Sparrow

My Harris's Sparrow dates at PBC ― I like this trend!

2016-10-09 2 Mike McDowell
2015-10-04 2 Mike McDowell
2014-10-11 1 Mike McDowell
2013-10-03 1 Mike McDowell
2012-09-23 1 Mike McDowell
2007-11-03 1 Mike McDowell
2004-10-13 1 Mike McDowell
2003-10-06 1 Mike McDowell

As I've written before, I expect Harris's Sparrows just as the White-crowned Sparrow population peaks at the prairie, and there were plenty of them to photograph today as well.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Novice birders are routinely confused by immature White-crowned Sparrows, mistaking them for American Tree Sparrow. While they are superficially similar, with enough field experience one can tell them apart without much difficulty. For one, there are behavioral and vocalization cues, but learning salient plumage differences is key. The eye stripe on White-crowned Sparrow tends to be weaker and connects with the crown. Also, the tree sparrow has a bi-colored bill with the lower mandible being yellow, not pinkish orange. Their body shapes are pretty distinct, especially head to body size ratio. The double white wingbar on the American Tree Sparrow tends to be solid, while appears more like dashed lines (or dots) on White-crowned.

White-crowned Sparrow (immature)

White-crowned Sparrow (immature)

Other sparrows during the day included Fox (my first of fall), Swamp, Song, Lincoln's, Savannah, Field, Chipping, as well as Dark-eyed Juncos and Eastern Towhees. I couldn't have asked for better lighting and temperature conditions for digiscoping. Some birds, like the Swamp Sparrow below, are fairly cooperative, while other species, like Lincoln's Sparrow, tend to be more skittish.

Swamp Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Large Milkweed Bugs

Smooth Aster

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 9, 2016 7:30 AM - 12:00 PM
58 species

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell


  1. Congrats on the Harris Sparrow. Beautiful photo!! I've been out there painting lately in the evening and can hear the White-throated Sparrows calling. Sorry to see them go.

  2. I didn't know those were large milkweed bugs. Thanks for the ID!