A studio for bird study

Tag: sparrow

Field Notes on Nesting Golden-crowned Sparrow

by Bryce W. Robinson


Figure 1. Female Golden-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia atricapilla.

One of the perks of conducting research on Gyrfalcon’s in western Alaska is the time in the field to experience and study Alaska’s unique and diverse avifauna. I had never found the nest of a Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) (Figure 1 & 3) until recently. The nest was at the base of a small willow shrub on a sparsely vegetated hillside dominated by lichen covered tundra. It was constructed of grass, was situated on the ground, and contained five eggs (Figure 2.). The egg color was a greenish blue with reddish brown splotching evenly spaced, but densely concentrated on the broad end of the asymmetrical elliptic egg (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Golden-crowned Sparrow nest. Note the Musk Ox guard hair in the bowl of the nest.

One thing I missed in the hurried attempt to photograph the nest and leave quickly was the hair in the bowl. It appears that the sparrow used the coarse guard hair of Musk Ox to line the nest bowl. Nests display the architectural and creative genius of birds. I am fascinated to see materials such as Musk Ox hair used in a nest, particularly in only one section such as the bowl. The area where I found the nest was covered with the fine wool from a Musk Ox, termed Qiviut. Why the bird did not use this fine wool, and chose coarse guard hair is enough to wonder upon.


Figure 2. Female Golden-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia atricapilla.

While I was investigating the nest, the female remained close. I was impressed by her vigilance. She was anxious to continue incubating her clutch. I took her vigilance as a signal that my presence needed to be short, so I recorded the information I needed and quickly retreated. It’s an invaluable opportunity to be in such a place, where many unique and understudied birds are nesting all around. Truly, I’m in a field lab ripe for study, and I can’t take that for granted.

Singing American Tree Sparrow

by Bryce W. Robinson

I’ve made it a goal to get footage of as many singing birds in western Alaska as possible. I made out one morning in early May to film what was around. Not many birds are in Alaska in early May, but tree sparrows are the early birds in preparing for the breeding season, busy setting up territories. This bird was tirelessly singing, chasing away intruders, and conducting himself in the way any sparrow should in order to be a successful breeder. I took advantage of his focus and took this recording using my Zeiss Diascope.

Singing Sagebrush Sparrow

by Bryce W. Robinson

I took this clip the other day in the Sagebrush strewn landscape of southwestern Idaho. I recorded the video by digiscoping using my ZEISS Diascope 65 T* FL. Normally, Sagebrush Sparrows are busy singers and will generally tolerate you in the area so long as you don’t pay them too much attention. But for whatever reason, no matter how far I was the sparrows on this morning were extra timid. On top of that, the wind wasn’t helping. Due to the wind and the distance from the bird, you can’t really hear the singing. To add one more difficulty to getting the song recorded, there was a lone bull nearby that was constantly growling. I didn’t know bulls growl… So, there is room for improvement for recording video of a singing Sagebrush Sparrow.

Anyway, I’m still pleased with the outcome. I do think I need an external, directional microphone for recording singing birds. Digiscoping really caters to sparrows and other passerines that are more flighty, but it doesn’t capture the song well. Still, It’s really nice to have quality glass to help with the effort. I’m really excited to apply the technique to some of Alaska’s more timid birds this summer, such as the singing Arctic Warbler and displaying Bluethroat.

Increases in Harris’s Sparrow Reports in Idaho Highlight the Benefits of ebird

by Bryce W. Robinson

Immature Harris's Sparrow- Zonotrichia querula. 9X11" Prismacolor on bristol board

Immature Harris’s Sparrow- Zonotrichia querula. 9X11″ Prismacolor on bristol board. Illustration copyright Bryce W. Robinson

This winter, I’ve personally found five Harris’s Sparrows in the Great Basin. These sightings have been supplemented with about the same number by folks in my birding circle, anecdotally suggesting higher than average reports for Harris’s Sparrows. My friend Jay Carlisle posed the question; Is it a matter of a good breeding year for Harris’s Sparrow and an increased widespread juvenile distribution, or an increase in birding effort and ebird reporting? His conversation with a friend gave him additional anecdotal information that there were higher than average reports for Montana as well.

Obviously these questions are difficult to answer. What the presence of increased Harris’s Sparrow detections illustrates is the importance for birder’s to report their sightings to ebird and state records committees. This way we will be able to more fully trust these resources for historic distributions of any given species.

After reviewing Idaho’s past records of Harris’s Sparrow in ebird, it became apparent that this year stood out. You can review frequency charts on ebird for Idaho here.

But, it is important to consider that there are more participants in ebird as the years progress. What we will be able to see, if the birding effort continues for years to come, is how this winter compares to future years. With ebird, each year we will add to the data set, and incrementally increase the accuracy of range maps for species across the world.

This years Harris’s Sparrow numbers haven’t taught me much about the bird’s place in Idaho, but they have illustrated the benefits and need for filing ebird reports whenever I go birding.