Birding So Good, It Makes Ghosts Cry

Brace yourself for another brown bird bonanza.

And if you watch Hong Kong movies, you get that reference in the subject line. So, thinking back to my bird watching experience on the prairie, I keep humming the Shirley Bassey version of Where Do I Begin?: Where do I begin? To tell the story of how great the birds can be? The sweet old story that is out on the prairie, the simple truth about the birds that you can see. Where do I start?

At the start of this entry you can see our group spread out and that white speck in the distance is our motor coach. Behind me... can see miles of vast grassland. This was taken at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge--one of the many places we birded during the festival. I could have meandered around here for a full day quite easily. We saw so many great birds, we never really had time to see the infamous pelican colony that this refuge is known for. Julie Zickefoose was the keynote speaker and she added photos of sweeping vistas with bison roaming. She got a tad choked up when she tried to talk about the prairie and I think understood what she was saying. We have only remnants of the prairie left, when at one time it was so unbelievably vast and stretched for miles. How we as a species managed to reduce it to such a small amount that is so fragile it could easily disappear is equally unbelievable.

One of the main attractions of the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival is the chance to see grassland sparrows--the most common one we found was the savanna sparrow (above). Some of the non birding blog readers are probably starting to roll their eyes asking "Seriously, brown birds?" But these aren't the brown birds (house sparrows) that crowd out other birds at the feeder. These are more shy, unassuming singers that if you could, would jump at the chance to attract them. Besides, that sparrow isn't all brown--note the yellow spots on the crown?

The second most common was the grasshopper sparrow. Even this little bird isn't all brown--note the hint of yellow on his shoulders? We have quite a few grasshopper and savanna sparrows where I live. Their songs can sound very similar, but a great way to learn them is to sit in some grasslands and listen to the two birds side by side, and you can tell them apart. The grasshopper sparrow definitely has a more buzzy sounding song. Interesting fact according to National Geographic Handheld Guide to Birds: grasshopper sparrows shake off the legs of grasshoppers before feeding them to their young.

This distant bird is a Le Conte's sparrow--a life bird that many festival attendees needed for their lists. These guys can be found in wet grasslands and meadows--they are incredibly secretive which makes them hard to see. The look very similar to Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows (below) and for me, the best way to tell them apart is by song--which this guy was doing with gusto.

We did get lots of looks at Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows. We were on our way to look for a Le Conte's when this one popped up about ten feet away. One of the women on the field trip asked which one it was and before anyone could answer, it gave the sharp-tailed call loud and clear. It really is a pretty sparrow, its front is a delightful pumpkin orange color. Wouldn't it be cool if this pretty little brown bird showed up at your feeders--not going to happen, but would be cool nonetheless.

The big target sparrow was the Baird's sparrow. These guys are tricky. They don't return to the exact same spot to nest every year. If there is a slight change, they move one--sometimes several miles away. This is probably an adaptation from long ago when the prairie was ruled by wild buffalo grazing and wild fires. Now, they are affected by change, but don't seem to appreciate the human recreation of prairie, so their options for nesting habitat get more and more limited every year. Our guides on the trip had a Baird's staked out and we could hear it in the distance almost as soon as we got off the bus. When we found it far away through our scopes in dawn's early light--we felt very fortunate.

Then we got closer and here is a photo of the bird from behind.

And then we got ever closer and were able to change position to get the Baird's sparrow in perfect light. Last year I heard and saw Baird's sparrow but not a look like this--I couldn't believe our fortune and that the bird simply ignored us.

Then we got even closer--a digiscoper's paradise! We were able to take so many photos of the bird, and it wouldn't leave. It seemed wrong somehow to just walk away from it, but this bird was not budging from its singing perch. Two packed bus loads of birders got to see the Baird's and anyone with digiscoping or photography equipment got incredible shots. The song was so clear and one of my favorite songs, I decided to up the ante by digivideoing the Baird's sparrow:

Isn't that just one of the sweetest bird songs on the planet? I remember working at the bird store and listening to the Stokes' bird call cds and every time the Baird's sparrow song played, I would think to myself, "What a pretty song! What must it be like to hear that out in the wild?" The other target bird was a Sprague's pipit, which was singing and displaying nearby. Some bird festival attendees wished the Baird's sparrow would quiet down so they could hear the pipit a little better. Last year, I had the exact opposite problem, I wished the pipits would be quieter so I could hear the Baird's! Ah, life.

Here we have a herd of birders nestled in the grass, enjoying lunch in the glorious sun after a great morning of birding. Seeing all those life birds makes a body hungry.

When I'm on the prairie, I myself get a misty-eyed. To the group, I say that it's allergies (and sometimes it is) but all the different bird songs, insect buzzing, and wind combine to a chorus that would bring Mozart to his knees--it's so beautiful and grasps a strong hold on every single one of your senses, you are forced to enjoy it. I can tell you how wonderful everything is, and link to individual songs of birds, but until you hear it and see it for yourself all at one time, it's just too hard to communicate. It's kind of like tasting vanilla extract and thinking how kinda unimpressive that is. However, when you combine vanilla extract with some sugar, flour, eggs, butter, and chocolate chips--you get one heck of a cookie.

Whatever you do in life, find a way to visit a true prairie with your family at least once--it's a true North American treasure.