The Chips Are Down

I was last in America in October. Autumn colour was in the process of slumping from treetop to path side, swathes of yellow and orange coming whomping down with each stir of the breeze, whilst amongst the leaves still attached – and in the surprisingly high proportion of trees which remained green – traveling bands of wood warblers flitted and hid in the company of other migrant birds. It felt like the end of a party, everybody busily picking up their coats whilst the host ushers them out the door, eyeing the detritus left behind but dreaming of the renewed hush which will surely follow.

By the time we came back for another visit on Wednesday, I somehow expected winter to be finally on the way out and that signs of summer’s impending renewed party-time would be all around. Things on the bird front would surely be starting to jump. I was partially disavowed of this notion when I checked the frequency graphs on E-Bird, an online bird recording tool similar to Birdtrack (but even more powerful). It made clear that I’m here too early for the height of passerine migration season which will follow later in April and through May. To see much beyond winter regulars and year-round residents, I’ll have to get a little lucky or concentrate on wildfowl and waders.

Luck I can handle, but what I didn’t expect to be contending with was the weather. It’s been cold, bitterly cold (again!) with the sensation of the easterly wind back home seeming to have followed me, although around here I believe it’s the continental north-westerly you need to watch out for. New growth is hard to come by and many spring flowers still lie dormant, although as back in Britain planted bulbs – crocuses and daffodils – are valiantly struggling to bloom, and the first speedwells and violets are out. To add to the un-springlike temperature we’ll soon have snow to contend with, if the forecast is anything to go by, with 5-8 inches on the way to Pennsylvania where we’re currently staying with my sister-in-law, her husband, and our extremely energetic (for which read exhausting) five-years-and-one-day-old nephew.*

So all in all it’s not surprising that I’m yet to see any out-of-the-ordinary birds this trip, or any which are strictly migrants in this region. Nonetheless some species are proving especially abundant, robins for example, which seem to be hopping in numbers on every lawn, park and field. American robins, of course, Turdus migratorius: a member of the thrush family which in behaviour is more reminiscent of our blackbird than of robins, when hunting worms on suburban lawns; or of fieldfares when they flock together in, er, fields before flying off with a great chorus of ‘chack-chack-chack’ alarm calls.

Meanwhile in brushy edges and woodland undergrowth, the chip buffet is back (see here for explanation!) to test visiting birders, only this time it’s not warblers but sparrows which are out to puzzle. America is rich in sparrow species, and they’re inevitably a tricky, predominately brown and streaky bunch. Most of which, according to the books, say ‘chip’ or variations thereof which I’m trying to get my ears around. But based on the few species I can confidently identify so far – by appearance or song, anyway, don’t ask me to tell you how each prefers to chip – white-throated and song sparrows are here in greater abundance than I’ve yet seen. Perhaps a few swamp sparrows in the mix too. Dark-eyed juncos are also all over the place. They’re far too easy for a sparrow, since they’re basically blue, not brown. But I’ll forgive them that for they’re highly charming little birds, and I hadn’t seen any since that lonely individual in the New Forest last January.

In fact if I’m honest this birding setup leaves very little to complain about. There’s no more accurate birding truism than that which says it’s worth knowing the common species well, so as to better know when you’re looking at something different. If I don’t know robins and the commoner American sparrows like the back of my proverbial hand by the end of this trip, I won’t have been making enough use of the opportunity. But if I do I hope my new powers will help to nail something a bit more ‘interesting’ by the time we head back across the pond, and have had a little more time for ‘proper’ birding. Watch this space. For now, I must be going. Batman just landed on my head…

*He’s all about them superheroes, firefighters and monster trucks for the moment – but I’ll get him into birds yet, just wait and see!

American Robin from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

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