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Snow birds, and yet another wayward westerner

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Rick Leche
Golden-crowned Sparrow

This time the snow stuck. It was the perfect snow – not enough to shovel but enough to fuel a weekend of sledding and several days of successful wildlife tracking. In snow, the secretive night animals are forced to write their stories. Coyotes reveal that they are everywhere, every night – based on what I see whenever it snows, they frequently pass right under my bedroom window, leaving tracks on top of the ones my little dog left earlier. Coyote tracks go in and out of almost every neighbor’s yard. Otherwise invisible White footed Mice leave their little hopping tracks across woodland paths, tiny versions of the ubiquitous tracks of gray squirrels. The damn rabbits show that they are still everywhere, and small birds leave graceful, parallel lines with the tips of their primaries.

The snow brings birds out where you can see them. It melts first at sunny edges, where the newly exposed grass often fills with feeding birds. Snowless spots under the protection of cedars can be crowded with robins, finches, and other frugivores. I saw this firsthand at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture sanctuary on Monday. Sunny field edges cleared of snow were full of dozens of songbirds - White-throated Sparrows drawn out of the shaded thickets, Song Sparrows, House Finches, a single Swamp Sparrow. I scanned the flocks repeatedly hoping for something rare, as the snow often flushes out the weird birds, the ones that don’t belong. But I wasn’t as lucky as one homeowner in Chatham.

That’s right, just when I thought it was safe to talk about something besides rare birds from out west, the rarest of all showed up this week. In a private yard somewhere deep in the Cape’s elbow, a nondescript but odd bird appeared among the usual Song Sparrows and juncos. A bigger than average sparrow with plain gray breast and a suspicious, subtly yellow forehead. It was the Cape’s second ever record of a Golden-crowned Sparrow, a very lost visitor from Alaska or the wilds of the Yukon Territory. One visited the Vineyard a couple of Aprils ago, but the last, and only other one ever seen on the Cape was in 1980. Unlike the directionally challenged Rufous Hummingbirds that share much of their breeding range, Golden-crowned Sparrows don’t make a habit of visiting Massachusetts.

Adults look like they have huge, angry black eyebrows, setting off the glowing yellow forehead. They breed into northern Alaska in wild, shrubby tundra edge or alpine scrub, then winter tamely in yards, parks, and brushy fields in Oregon and California. As far as I can remember I’ve only ever seen one, in either California or Washington. I’ve always loved their song, a sweet, sad whistled tune. Apparently, 19th century miners knew Golden-crowned Sparrows as “Weary Willie” for endlessly singing “I’m so tired.” The unlucky ones heard “No gold here.”

It looks like our snow cover it’s on its way out. The birds will once again retreat to the safety of the dense thickets, our sleds will return to the basement, and the night animals will keep their secrets again. I feel like the week of cold finally hardened us off, and I’m ready for more winter. I actually hope we haven’t seen the last of the snow, or the birds it brings out.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.