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Appreciating Subtle Sparrows

April 23, 2012

I went birding in the rain yesterday.  Normally I would take a rainy morning as an opportunity to stick at home, maybe catch up on some reading or writing or family time.  But it is the last half of April, and I work five days a week, and weekend mornings in late spring are not to be wasted, cloud cover or drizzle be damned.  So I waited a little bit for things to lighten up and headed out in the weather, sans camera of course, to Mason Farm near Chapel Hill.  My local patch, my spring birding sanctuary.

Birding without a camera is sort of freeing, not only because of the increased range of motion afforded me by forgoing the five pound weight around my shoulder, but I was able to get back birding free of wondering whether or not every bird I see is a potential photo opportunity, the sort of post-ID argument you have with yourself while wondering whether you can set up a shot here.  Birding with a camera has made me a better birder for a lot of reasons, but it has also made me a tad obstinate.  It’s good to get away from it from time to time and maybe the rain was just the ticket.

It certainly didn’t keep the birds from doing their thing.  I quickly racked up a few new year firsts.  The Gray Catbirds, the week early Northern Waterthrush, a skulky Indigo Bunting, a couple singing Prairie Warblers and a solo Yellow-breasted Chat.  As I round a corner on the northeast side of the property, a little thicket that’s produced some great birds over the years, I noted a small flock of Swamp Sparrows working their way though the brambles and onto the patch.  For whatever reason, these birds sort of surprised me.  Not that’s it’s particularly unusual to see Swamp Sparrows in late April (though it is getting on for them), but that I never seemed to note the immaculate state of their appearance before.  These were truly exceptional Swamp Sparrows, the very picture of chestnut and gray.

Now I like Swamp Sparrows, I would probably put them up there in my top five favorite sparrows, but it wasn’t always like that.  There was a time, as there is an any prospective birder’s career, that I just didn’t get sparrows.

A totally different and not quite as nice Swamp Sparrow - Durham Co, December 2011

Coming to grips with sparrows is something of a right of passage for every birder.  Last week I was at Mason Farm with some relative newcomers who remarked that they appreciated having me along because they’re somewhat intimidated by sparrows and never took the time to tackle them.  Now I won’t claim to be any sort of special expert, but I’m not particularly intimidated by sparrows in the way I may be with silent Empids or subadult gulls.  I’ve moved beyond giving a lot of thought, unless I’m faced with something unusual.  Now would you then say I appreciate the sparrows more or less now that they no longer give me cold sweats?

Appreciation is one of those words that thrown around quite a bit with regard to birding.  We’re not only supposed to see birds, we’re supposed to appreciate them.  The line on twitchers among a not insignificant portion of our community is that they don’t appreciate the birds enough what with their worrying about the numbers and all.  And frankly, that’s kind of a big responsibility to put on people.  That not only are birders expected to be able to identify those birds in front of us, but to appreciate them too.  And that in a very narrowly defined way.

After all, what is that even supposed to mean?  What is the right way to appreciate a bird?  Are we to stop and consider every single bird that we see?  To be conscious of it in a deeper, more contemplative, sense?  Or is it just a way to differentiate twitchers and watchers in a way that sort of characterizes the former as a jerk?  I don’t know.  All I know is that trying to ascribe motivations of other birders based on your own sensibilities is something of a fool’s errand.  We’re all capable of appreciating every bird we see, even those that at first seem intimidating or beyond or nascent abilities.

A Song Sparrow of some non-breeding subspecies or cline or something - December 2010

I suppose this is all a round-about way of saying that, for the first time in some time, those Swamp Sparrows – so sharply attired and so soon on their way north – really got to me today. I suppose I appreciated them sufficiently.  After all, there’s no magic to it.  The first step towards appreciating anything, is simply to decide you’re going to do it.

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