September 12th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. Cool weather continues to chase the birds south. It was just 14 degrees C. at 8.50 this morning when I started a count of birds in the valley.
It starts with a stretch of trail that gets a lot of foot traffic, much of it families bringing offerings of cracked corn and sunflower seeds for the waiting Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mourning Doves. Occasionally (and this was one of those days) something unusual and migratory stumbles upon the bounty, we sometimes see Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows mixed in. Today there was something altogether new – Lincoln’s Sparrows.
Another day I might have overlooked them. As I approached the bottom of a small hill I saw and noted what I took to be a couple of Song Sparrows scuffling with all the usual ruffians. Then one of them shot across the path running (yes running) like a panicked rodent. I wondered for a moment if what I’d seen was a large vole and not a bird; a worrying sort of misidentification for an experienced birder you’ll understand, or maybe I’d just imagined something. Then it happened again and this time I knew it was a bird, but this was behaviour unlike any I’d ever seen before. Birding is full of new experiences most of which get tucked away and absorbed as part of the lore and so far this rodent run was nothing more than that.
Then moving on I heard a song I didn’t recognize, a weak musical trill, pretty and puzzling. I found who was singing it and I realized it was a Song Sparrow lookalike but definitely not a Song Sparrow. It didn’t take long to narrow the field to Lincoln’s Sparrow, not that I’ve seen many, but there were a few field marks to point in that direction. I found a recording of the song on an iPhone app to clinch the identification and smiled inwardly; a new one for the valley.
A little later I met one or two more Lincoln’s Sparrows, singing too. Song at this time of year is unusual but without it I might well have noted a handful of Song Sparrows. Here is a better picture of a Lincoln’s Sparrow followed by one of a Song Sparrow, you’ll understand the confusion.
There was more to the day of course. The last of the season’s vireos: Philadelphia, Warbling and Red-eyed, a couple of Belted Kingfishers patrolling the waterways and a shy Green Heron. All delightful birds but it was definitely the Lincoln’s Sparrow that carried the day.