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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bothell Harris's Sparrow

On our way down to Seattle for a short trip, we had time to make a quick jaunt over to nearby Bothell, Washington to look for a Harris's sparrow that has been reported there. The Harris's sparrow is a species normally confined to the middle part of North America, and only occasionally wandering east or west to either coast. Interestingly, several have been reported in Oregon and Washington this winter. I've seen the species once before, back in 2004 in North Dakota.

The stakeout site was a small wetlands near a school district building right in the middle of an urban area. Upon arriving, we met a fellow birder who has spent a lot of time observing the sparrow. He gave us some tips on where it normally appeared, and we decided to spend some time walking up and down the short dike by the wetlands to see what we could see.

I was amazed by the number of bird species utilizing this little city pond. I immediately saw quite a few sparrow species, including song, white-crowned, and this golden-crowned:

There was also a flock of house sparrows, and this male was collecting nesting material:

The bushes were full of activity, owing in part to the presence of a couple of feeders along the dike. Red-winged blackbirds spotted towhees, bushtits, and black-capped chickadees all were making use of the feeders. Here's one of the chickadees:

The wetlands were comparatively quiet, although one double-crested cormorant, a pair of bufflehead, and a pair of gadwall were hanging out there. A Canada goose snoozed in the nearby reeds, and a small flock of mallards flew overhead. A kingfisher chattered here and there, and a handful of violet-green swallows swooped about. I was excited to find my first barn swallow (145) among them. I was listening to a marsh wren singing out of sight when another small bird caught my attention. It turned out to be a male common yellowthroat (146)! Usually this species attracts attention with its witchity-witchity-witch song, and I was surprised to find my first one of the year by sight and not by call. It was too quick for a photo, but one of the two myrtle warblers I saw was a little more cooperative:

At this point a little over half an hour had passed, and while I had found 20 species at this little marsh site, I hadn't spotted the Harris's sparrow. That's when I noticed the local birder motioning to me from the other end of the dike. I hurried down there and sure enough, saw the Harris's sparrow (147) for about 30 seconds before it disappeared into the brush again:

It may seem odd to go out of my way and spend all that time just to get a glimpse of a sparrow. I was excited to see this species that is rare to me and rare to the area, but as is often the case the unusual bird wasn't the only highlight of my trip to twitch this bird. A lot of people don't fully understand bird listers like myself, who try to see as many species as we can in a day, a year, or a lifetime. This day, however was a perfect example of why I list. The incentive of seeing a new species brought me to a neat little habitat I never would have visited otherwise, and I spent 45 minutes in the sunshine enjoying a mixture of common and newly returned spring species. The sentiment behind my enjoyment of bird listing was summarized perfectly by renowned birder Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, his account of going for a year list record while hitch-hiking across the United States as a 19 year-old in 1973:

The list total isn't important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is just a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It's like a trip where the destination doesn't have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Great to hear of your successful twitch - didn't realise you lot used the term.
Echo the sentiments from Kenn Kaufmann very wise words.
You've just snuck into the lead again but I have a cunning plan for the w/end...



Monika said...

Dave - I may very well have acquired the term from you! :)

It's amazing to me how close our lists are after months of birding on different continents.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice post. I would like to comment that this area is a public trail therefore the public may be walking on the trail. I have not yet run in to one nice 'birder' taking photos out here. If somebody asks a photographer with a giant zoom lense, what kind of bird he is looking for, that seems like reasonable curiosity to me. So far the main thing I get in return is people being annoyed and dismissing. Just because I am on the trail without some giant camo camera lense people don't have to be so rude as to tell me to move along because I am going to scare your precious birds away. I wish the Harris' sparrow had never come to this pond. It is not that interesting of a bird and I would not have to have met so many MANY rude people who think they have some better right to be on the trail. To the gentleman I saw today on 4/20/2011, you count as one of these VERY rude 'birders'. I hope you got a great picture of your bird. If I ever see you again out by the pond, I will be sure to stick around until you leave. If you are going to visit the area, please don't be so MEAN to people who you may seem as annoying. It is a public place, be mindful of that.

Monika said...

Hi Anonymous -

Thank you for your post. I'm so sorry to hear you haven't run into friendly birders out there. You're of course right that it's a public trail and birders don't have a right to it over any others. While I was out there someone stopped to ask what we were looking at and the other birder with the camera explained. I even asked him if he was bothered by people walking through when he was taking photos and he said no. So, while there are some bad apples in every bunch, I certainly hope you won't lump all birders into the rude category. A lot of us are just out to enjoy wildlife and nature along with anyone else who is enjoying the outdoors for their own activities.

The one thing I have to disagree with is that the Harris' sparrow is not that interesting of a bird. It's normally only in the central part of the nation, so for people interested in birds it is a very interested sighting here. That doesn't excuse people being rude, but I hope it explains a bit why people are so excited to look for this one sparrow.

Again, I'm sorry you've had such a negative experience there. Most birders try to follow the informal "Birder's Code of Ethics", and it sounds like those birders you have come across have not.