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.
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.
“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
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!
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!