A blast from the past

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This past Saturday started slowly as rainy weekend mornings often do. I sat at my kitchen table, answering an email on my laptop, drinking coffee and occasionally glancing out the window at the birds visiting the feeder. Then I saw a visitor that made me jump out of my seat– a White-throated Sparrow.

I have not seen a White-throated Sparrow in quite a while, but I spent a large chunk of my twenties stalking this bird in the black fly infested forests of Northern Vermont and trapping wintering sparrows in Texas. I studied this fascinating and frequently frustrating species for my PhD dissertation.

I currently live in western Colorado, on the edge of the red rock desert typically associated with Utah. White-throated Sparrows breed in the Boreal forest of Canada and far Northeastern U.S.; they winter in the Southeastern U.S., parts of the Midwest, and even the California coast. But not Colorado. They are recorded in my neck of the woods occasionally, and are usually just passing through during migration. I have lived here for 8 years and never seen one.

My almost five-year-old daughter heard me gasp and came to the window to check out the bird I was so excited by. Like many kids, when she looks out the window she usually feels the need to be touching it. The thwack of little hands hitting glass has scattered interesting birds more times than I can count. So my excitement quickly transitioned into desperate pleas for her not touch or get too close to the window. As is also typical with almost five-year-olds, I had to hiss this at her five or six times (No! Please no! Just look from there!) before I convinced her she could see the very cool White-throated Sparrow just fine without her nose on the glass.

Then I swung into flustered, scrambling action. I needed documentation! I grabbed the nearest camera- my phone and tried to get a photo. Total fail. “Stupid phone!” I scurried down the hall to my bedroom and started tearing it apart trying to locate my husband’s real camera. Cursing our clutter I found it and returned to the window. The sparrow was still eating seeds below the feeder! Yes!

No! “I hate this camera!” It never does what I want it to and there are too many settings. (It’s actually not that complicated, but I only attempt to use it maybe every other year. My husband has tried to teach me the basic operations but “I don’t learn well from him” Translation: stubbornly hate when he tells me how to do things, even if I have asked him to…)

Finally I manage to get an ugly picture but the sparrow’s key markings are visible. Proof! My daughter, who is the only family member home with me at the time, doesn’t really appreciate how cool this bird is. So, this being 2016, I take to social media to share my enthusiasm and solicit some affirmation from the science/birder crowd on Twitter.

In 120 characters or less I broadcast my excitement about my awesome bird sighting.

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I tagged the Twitter account CitSci WTSP (WTSP= White-throated Sparrow) which uses the handle @WTSPsong. I had followed this account awhile back because I am interested in citizen science and White-throated Sparrows are “my” bird, but I hadn’t really looked into what they were about. But I thought that if anyone in the “Twitterverse” would get why I was so happy about this sparrow, they would.

Well @WTSPsong was excited for me all the way from Canada. Turns out CitSci WTSP is a citizen science project based out of the University of Northern British Colombia and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. The project leaders, Ken Otter, Scott Ramsay, and Stephanie LaZerte are studying variation in White-throated Sparrow songs. They are asking citizen scientists to record sparrows in their area and submit the recordings to the project which will measure how the sparrows song change over the years and across the continent.

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“Ha!” I thought. This bird is NOT going to sing! It’s cold and wet, he’s migrating (if he even is a male) and there are no other White-throated Sparrows around to show off to. Shows you what I know.

Several hours later I was unloading groceries from the car and there it was! The pure whistled “Old Sam peabody peabody”if you’re a Yankee or “Pure Sweet Canada Canada” if you’re a Canuck. My head snapped around like

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via GIPHY

The sparrow was in the neighbor’s crabapple tree across the street. I dropped the groceries and whipped out my phone. There was a surely a record function on this stupid phone somewhere, right? “F@#king phone, f*#k, f*#k!” Luckily I hadn’t found the record button yet, so my sailor’s mouth is not “on tape”. Finally I found the voice memo app and started sneaking up on the tree.

The neighbors, who just moved in this week and don’t know me from Adam, doubtless wondered why this strange woman was standing on the sidewalk, in the drizzle, pointing her phone at their crabapple like a ray gun for 15 minutes. Welcome to the neighborhood! You may have guessed from the ceramic woodpecker affixed to our house and the owl sculpture in the garden– here be birders! Don’t be alarmed, we’re not trying to catch a glimpse of you exciting the shower with these binoculars! We just want a look at that Blue Grosbeak in your bushes.

Despite a lot of background noise, and a measly smartphone recording, I managed to get something the White-throat Song project could use, their first recording from Colorado. Yay science! That yellow dot in Colorado is me!

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So check out the White-throat Song Project  and help them fill up this map with recordings. White-throated Sparrows have a beautiful and easily recognizable song. You can listen to recordings of songs from across the U.S. and Canada here on xeno-canto.org.

Get outside, get data!

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A blast from the past

Listening to Spring

Photo by Alan Vernon
Western Meadowlark            Photo by Alan Vernon

(I wrote this short article about bird song for our local website Fruita Pulp.  Check out the local talent (poetry!) and information (mountain biking!) at http://www.fruitapulp.com/)

The temperature has finally clawed its way back above freezing (during the day at least), the sun is showing itself again, and in honor of Valentine’s Day the Eurasian Collared doves are putting the moves on each other.  If you squint into the distance, you can see spring meandering our way.  Finally.

In my opinion, one of the best things about spring is the way it sounds when you wake up in the morning.  Sound is seasonal- it is an important cue to time and place. When I first wake up, before my eyes even open, I start listening.  My brain is groggily trying to figure out where I am in time and space.  In my case, the first thing I usually hear is cries of “Mommy, Mommy!” but in between summons, I become aware of the background noise.  Cars starting, a passing train, but there are sounds that change with the seasons.  On a snowy winter day, all noise seems muffled by the insulation of the snow.  But if you hear exuberant birdsong, you know it’s spring.

For me spring always brings a burst of energy and ambition.  I want to take on new challenges.  Last year this involved putting in a garden and then starting more seeds than I would ever have room to plant.  This year I challenged myself to show restraint when placing my seed order.  If you are looking for a new challenge this spring, why not learn some bird songs?  Learning birdsongs will certainly help you become a better birder, because you can often hear more birds than you can actually see.  But even if you don’t plan to take up birding as a hobby, there is something about being able to give a name to things that allows you to notice.  I think we could all stand to do a little more noticing of the world around us in this age of distraction and hurry.

Learning birdsongs may appear to be an arduous task, especially to non-musical folks like me- but it doesn’t have to be a chore.  I used to be a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ornithology course.  This course involved a LOT of memorization and the students were often overwhelmed, so I only asked them to learn 10 of the songs most commonly heard on campus.  Ten songs are not a lot, but it can really open a door into the world of natural sounds. You may find yourself noticing sounds and creatures that have been around you, unseen, all along.    If you can identify these common songs, when you hear something that is not in your “top 10” you know it may be something unusual and worth tracking down for a better look. At the very least you can impress your friends, or embarrass them, depending on how cool a crowd you run with.

Here are Fruita’s “top 10” in no particular order.  (The birders who are reading this will surely quibble with my list, but trust me it was REALLY hard to cut down to only 10.) If you click each name, you will be taken to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website where you can listen to each species’ songs and other sounds and see pictures of them.  There will be a quiz on Monday (just kidding.)

  1. Eurasian Collared Dove– these large, pale doves breed pretty early here in the Grand Valley and have already started calling to mates- a classic “koo-KOO-kook.  They also make a really ugly “hwaah” call when alarmed that sounds like a cow in pain to me.
  2. House Sparrow– a commonplace but cheery “cheep, cheep, cheerup”
  3. House Finch– a jumbled warble usually with a slurred “zree” note somewhere near the end.
  4. Starling– an accomplished mimic, the Starling can impersonate other birds like Red-tailed Hawks.  Their song is complex and almost mechanical sounding.
  5. American Robin– the happy classic “cheerily, cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily!”
  6. Northern Flicker– our most common woodpecker.  Listen for it’s loud “Keeeer!”  call
  7. Western Meadowlark – A beautiful, flute-like melody often heard in pastures and fields.  One of the best sounds of spring.
  8. Mourning Dove –  a softer “coo-oo”, than the Eurasian Collared-Dove, often mistaken for an owl.  (For a great musical tribute to this dove, check out the song “Mornin’ Dove” by Robinella and the CC String Band.)
  9. Common Raven – one of the most intelligent birds, they make a wide variety of sounds including a  loud“Croak!” which can be heard for more than a mile.
  10. Bullock’s Oriole – listen for these near large cottonwoods where they like to build their sock-like nests.  The Oriole’s song is a whistled melody that sounds a bit like the Robin, but has a richer tone and is less repetitive.

The Eurasian Collared Doves have already started calling to mates, but the rest of the gang won’t really get going until April- so you have about 6 weeks to study.  If you learn these, you may then be able to pick out a Lazuli Bunting along the river or a wash.  These small birds are a spectacular blue, orange and white and worth tracking down for a look.  Another bird you’re likely to hear nearby water is the bold Red-winged Blackbird.  Take a hike in McInnis Canyons and you may hear one of my favorites, a Canyon Wren, echoing from the canyon walls or a Black-throated Sparrow singing from atop a four-winged saltbush.  Close your eyes, smell the mud and the fresh leaves, feel the sun warming your face. Be still for a moment and open your ears.  You may be surprised what you can hear.

Listening to Spring