Tree Sparrows Have Finally Arrived!

By josh • Nature, Wildlife • 31 Dec 2012

I had intended to post another photo from the archives today, but yesterday I had a chance to get out in the yard with the camera during a break from shoveling so I have a few new shots to share.  We saw the sun for the first time in a week and we have two feet of fresh snow on the ground; the light was lovely but it was tough to manage the glare.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow
Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/8, 1/1500s, ISO 250

American Tree Sparrows are a recent winter arrival to our yard.  In general they blow into our area in late October, their arrival coincident with the departure of the Chipping Sparrows, with whom (at least in non-breeding plumage) they are easily confused.  Here’s the eBird bar chart for Tree Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows for Chittenden County in 2012:

At our old house in Monkton the October transition was dramatic- one day we had Chipping Sparrows, the next we had Tree Sparrows, and never the twain did meet.  Here, though, we had a single Tree Sparrow for a few hours in early November and not another until the two who visited our feeder station yesterday.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow
Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/4000s, ISO 400

Several of the easy characteristics that separate American Tree Sparrows from non-breeding Chipping Sparrows are visible in the above image- the smudgy black breast spot, the buffy wash along the flanks, and the bi-colored bill.  The eye stripe in the Tree Sparrow is rufous (as opposed to the black eye stripe in the Chippy), and the Tree Sparrow has a notably rufous shoulder.  In poorer viewing conditions, I generally find the black spot to be most diagnostic.

It seems that any discussion of American Tree Sparrows necessarily involves their differentiation from Chipping Sparrows, but they’re an interesting enough species in their own right.  They don’t really have much to do with trees at all: they feed on seed sources on or near the ground and they nest on the ground above treeline in northern Canada and Alaska.  In our neighborhood they’re most frequently seen (when not at the feeder) in large flocks near the roadside and in hedgerows in agricultural areas.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow
Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/7.1, 1/1250s, ISO 250

The Tree Sparrows’ arrival (in the company of Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings, and Pine Grosbeaks, no less) was a nice birding bookend for 2012.  If you’re still reading this far into the post (commendable!), I wish you a creative, fulfilling, and wonderful 2013!

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