Location: Burlington, Vermont
It was the second night this winter that I spent at my cousin’s house. This time I was prepared. On my first visit, a month ago, I didn’t bring my “wildlife lens”, a 500 mm Sigma zoom that lets me fill the camera frame with a small songbird without spooking it. I missed the chance to photograph a number of vireos, chickadees and juncos that gathered around their backyard bird feeder. I didn’t know they had one.
This time, I watched and watched, but only one chickadee flitted to the feeder, snatching a few seeds. Not a vireo or a junco in sight! I was about to give up when a small flock of American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) stopped by for breakfast. These chubby, long-tailed sparrows busily flew from a tree branch to the feeder to the ground then back to a tree branch. They foraged voraciously as they need to eat 30% of their body weight per day to stay alive. If they are forced to fast only one day, their body temperature drops too low, and they likely won’t make it to the next morning.
Despite their names, American Tree Sparrows, spend a lot more time on the ground or perched on low shrubs and weeds than in trees. During the summer, they forage and nest on the ground in the Krummolz (scrubby stunted trees) or just above tree line.
It’s been a mild winter in New England with only intermittent snow. I wondered if these twittering seed-eaters were already winging their way back to the Canadian tundra where they breed. Winter is the only time you can see Tree Sparrows in the Lower 48.
The American Tree Sparrow is a cute little thing, with a rust-colored cap on top of its head, matching stripe off the corner of its eye, and white and black bars on its wings. Its bi-colored bill is black on top and yellow below. It has a curious dark smudge in the middle of its buff breast as if it bumped its pudgy belly on a patch of soot.
As winter wanes, I’m excited to stake out my bird feeders when I get home to see if any migrating birds drop on their way north. Anything stop by your feeder lately?