Small Brown Birds Are Exciting, For Once

4.27.2006, 915-1100 am
Cabbage Patch Hollow -> Wallingford Rd Bridge -> Upper Wister Draw

Just when I cast the South Crum off to the wayside, it throws me a pretty nice morning and two new species for the Crum, one a long-expected holdout, and the other a complete shock. This was probably the most relaxing walk I’ve taken this season, with plenty of time before my class, cooperative birds, and a stomach full of apples from an early breakfast. Apples are so great. I was able to cover almost the entire north-south distance of the Crum, and satisfactorily covered all the major areas. With lower creek levels, I would have explored the opposite bank more extensively, but the recent rains made crossing difficult.

Undoubtedly the most exciting find of the day was a single Swamp Sparrow at the creekside rocks between the swampy bend and Skunk Cabbage Hollow. The species is listed as being a rare migrant on the 1992 checklist, and the DVOC checklist gives it an uncommon status, given that you are even in the right habitat. I wasn’t expecting any proper habitat in the Crum for Swamp Sparrows, so this was just a stunning find. I kept trying to doubt my identification, but the bird kept giving me fantastic looks, and in the end there was simply no doubt remaining. When it comes to finding uncommon birds in the Crum, this may be on the top of the list at this point. The only other birds I’ve seen that are listed as ‘rare’ on the 1992 checklist are Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Louisiana Waterthrush, yet all three are common species in the proper habitat, and I’m still puzzled as to why the Crum isn’t attractive enough for waterthrushes in the first place. This was an already uncommon species that was outside of its preferred habitat. What a coup.

Swamp Sparrow. Though it looks quite plain, it’s actually one of the most distinctive sparrow species in the East, with its bright rufous wings and contrasting gray head. Photo by Steve Mahurin.

The DVOC checklist has most of the major migrants arriving in the first week of May, perfectly coinciding with Reading Week. With several large papers, this will be a busier Reading Week than usual, but hopefully I’ll go out enough to catch most of the better migrants as they arrive.

  • 1 Swamp Sparrow – Swampy bend, calmly foraging around a fallen log. At one point, it flew to my side of the creek, within about 6 feet of me, which was stunning. I’ve spent hours looking for these things in wet and muddy swamps throughout the South in the coldest winters, often without success. Great looks at the bright rufous wings, sooty gray head, rufous cap, white throat, clean underparts, etc. You couldn’t ask for a better study of a Swamp Sparrow.
  • 1 House Wren – singing in the Holly Collection. This was once one of the most abundant species in the Crum, rivalling even robins or crows, and yet in my two years here this was the first one I’ve ever encountered. Apparently they used to breed in the dense thickets of invasive Japanese Knotweed that was once all over the Crum, but recent attempts to remove the Knotweed have also decimated House Wren breeding locations. Honestly, I think that’s for the best in the long run.
  • 1 Belted Kingfisher – female calling at Wallingford Rd. Bridge.
  • 1 Red-eyed Vireo – singing on the opposite bank at the hemlock bluff.
  • 3 Gray Catbird – Wallingford Rd. Bridge, and Holly Collection
  • 8 Yellow-rumped Warbler – Wallingford Rd. Bridge, Upper Wister Draw. All in breeding plumage, and singing at this point. I barely pay them any attention when they’re drab and brown in the winter, but I really love seeing them in the spring, they have such dramatic plumage, and they’ve just got so much character.
  • 2 Wood Thrush – singing in the distance somewhere in the woods between Crum Meadow and the highway, and a lone bird in Upper Wister Draw.
  • 2 Wood Duck – flew over Hollow Point, calling frantically
  • 7 Barn Swallow – now relatively easy to find at the Wallingford Rd Bridge
  • 1 Black-and-white Warbler – Reported by Ben Ewen-Campen in Upper Wister Draw
  • 1 White-breasted Nuthatch – on an oak along Magill Walk, I think the same branch that the short-lived swing was on, R.I.P.

Some of the birds that I began to find a few weeks ago have now become quite abundant, so I don’t feel obligated to report Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Chipping Sparrows, goldfinches, or flickers any longer. In fact, I think the goldfinches and flickers have actually been abundant all long, but I’ve only learned their calls and songs this spring.

On a random sidenote, the Philadelphia Enquirer recently ran a article in which they polled six leading ornithologists on what they thought the most beatiful North American birds were. The article can be found here and the results are:

  1. Scarlet Tanager
  2. Blackburnian Warbler
  3. Golden-winged Warbler
  4. Prothonotary Warbler
  5. Baltimore Oriole
  6. (tie) Green Jay, Swallow-tailed Kite, Wood Duck
  7. Harlequin Duck
  8. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  9. Magnolia Warbler
  10. (tie) Hooded Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Painted Bunting

Of the 15 birds on the list, I’ve found 5 in the Crum (Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Wood Duck, Cardinal, and Hooded Warbler), and in my life I’ve seen 10 (those in the Crum plus Blackburnian, Prothonotary, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Green Jay, and Painted Bunting). Magnolia and Golden-winged Warblers are certainly a possibility in the Crum, and I hope to track them down soon enough. I’ve found Chestnut-sided Warblers in the mountains of NC as well as at a local state park, but they may also occur in the Crum during migration, so I’ll keep an eye out for them as well.

I think it’s quite a good list, Scarlet Tanager would probably be my top choice as well. I’m surprised that Painted Bunting is so low, and that Ivory-billed Woodpecker even made it considering that so few people have (possibly) seen it. I’d probably add Western Tanager, American Redstart, and King Eider to this list, and maybe some others that I can’t think of at the moment, but otherwise, not a bad a list at all.

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