Clellie Lynch: Foxy finch and his friends

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"Swamp-sparrow, fox sparrow, vesper-sparrow/At dawn and dusk." — from "Cape Ann," by T.S. Eliot

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — As the very last piles of snow melt away leaving only a dampness of winter along the softening dirt roads, I step out onto the porch, take a deep breath and listen to the gathering dawn chorus. Robins sing from the treetops; nearby red-wing blackbirds tweeee to one another. On a low branch overhanging the now ice-free pond, a phoebe calls out his name over and over. Suddenly I hear a chittering and watch as the first-of-the-year tree swallow lands on the wire above the winter-flattened field. Yes! Persephone, the goddess of Spring, warms our hearts and the hibernal world as she lures migrating birds north.

Every day brings new species as well as changes in behavior to our breeding residents. Redtails brush feathers as they perch in pairs along the highway. Four(!) adult bald eagles circle above the post office, perhaps partnering up and searching the landscape for good nesting areas. Wood ducks and common mergansers glide across ponds and lakes. Our bluebirds flit from branch to ground all the while keeping an eye on that tree swallow, aware of the upcoming annual housing competition. Some years we have bluebirds in one box and tree swallows in the other. Then again some years we only have tree swallows in both.

WELCOME ARRIVAL

And best of all, that true harbinger of spring, the fox sparrow, arrives, occasionally venturing under the feeders, but mostly scrabbling about under the bushes along the edge of the woods. Some days I count four or five, other days the rufous flock grows to eight or nine, mingling quite complacently with their dapper cousins, the juncoes.

Every year towards the end of March these active avians come to visit for a week or more. "Foxy finch," as some people dubbed this bird, is definitely foxy in color, the reddest of the many sparrows that come north with the Spring. The tail in particular is that wonderful rusty color.

Mr Foxy though should not be confused with the hermit thrush which also has a reddish tail, spotty breast and searches for food in the leaf litter.

But they do not have, as we birders say, the same jiz, for the fox sparrow has that peculiar way of scratching to uncover seeds and other tasty tidbits hidden on the forest floor while the thrush gracefully moves forward, then stops and probes for food. The sparrow hops forward and then drags both feet back at the same time. One ornithologist called this the "double foot kick method/" This constant bobbing and bopping back and forth makes them easy to find under the bushes, for if there were no movement, it would be difficult to pick out the birds as they blend so well with the rusty brown leaves.

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The fox sparrow, Passer iliaca, is the largest of the North American sparrows and easier to identify than many of the other sparrows, but beware even though they are found all across the United States and Canada, there are four distinct subspecies with noticeably different plumages.

In Bent's "Life Histories of North American Birds" (1958), 18 subspecies with names such as the Kodiak fox sparrow, the Yakutat, the Yukon, Townsend's, Stephen's etc. are described, most of which are found out west, each from a particular locality with a distinct coloration and plumage pattern.

Fortunately the most recent AOU check list (1998) has re-organized these 18 into four definitive subspecies: Sooty, Thick-billed, Slate-colored and Red, the east coast one I have been seeing this past week. All are quite similar, but the sooty is more chocolate brown with an even-colored head and back; the thick-billed, well, has a thick bill; the Slate-colored is very gray on the back while our bird has reddish and gray markings about the head and back.

TERRIFIC SINGER

Like many sparrow species, this bird has a wonderful song that is rarely heard away from the breeding grounds. Many claim that this "joyful" song is the cr me de la cr me of the all the sparrow songs. The song sparrow's convoluted trilling comes in a close second. Alas, only occasionally does this bird sing en route to their Canadian breeding grounds. William Brewster wrote: " its voice rises among the woods filling the air with quivering delicious melody, which at lengthwise softly mingling with the soughing of the wind in the spruces ." He continues: "It expresses careless joy and exultant masculine vigor (hmmm!), rather than delicate shades of sentiment, and on this account is perhaps of a lower order than the pure passionless hymn of the Hermit Thrush."

The red or eastern fox sparrow's song begins with three clear rather rapid notes, a short pause, and the remainder of the lay is poured forth more deliberately ending with a single sweet note. Sibley transcribes this as: `wit, tip, swit, wit swit swit teer zeep-zet-zet-zweer.' The subspecies all belt out slight variations. How wonderful it must be to hear hundreds of them singing morning, noon and night on the breeding ground in northern Quebec! But then you might have to contend with thousands of mosquitos.

Other terms in the literature that foxy finch has to live up to: inherently shy, robust and vigorous, sometimes quarrelsome, pugnacious. The array of colors used to describe this avian include: ferruginous, rufous, cinnamon, reddish, rusty, rich chestnut, red-brown and ruddy.

Perhaps one or two will call before heading north, but at this point in the season we delight in the trills of song sparrows mingling with robins, blackbirds, bluebirds, cardinals and finches for finally spring has sprung!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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