Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
Spring is here! The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the grass is greening (and begging to be mowed!). Goldfinches are gold, cardinals are bright red (granted, they are red year round) and waves of brightly colored warblers, vireos and other songbirds are making their way north eager to join in the local scene. Currently residing somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, these colorful tweeters will make it here soon, timing their arrival with the greening and opening of leaves. These insectivorous songbirds will feast on the leaf-eating “bugs” associated with such greenery, and then fill the bellies of their newly hatched offspring with insect after insect. Only to be eaten by a bigger predator—and a food chain is formed! “Raised on insects,” as they say.
Songbirds, of course, have been showing up for a while now, long before the oaks and maples even considered producing those leaves. These “early” birds weren’t at the mercy of insect/leaf-based food chains, no. Instead they may have obtained nourishment from seeds found on the ground and along roadsides. Or maybe they are master seekers and found insects hiding within tree bark and under fallen leaves. From the habitats the early birds frequent it should be no surprise that these tweeters are often draped in shades of browns and greys, mottled and marbled for camouflage. Yes, these are the birds of roadside bursts, the brown forms that erupt when a vehicle passes, only to return moments later. They are “Little Brown Jobs” or LBJs.
Take a closer look at a flock of LBJs and their diversity becomes apparent. While the majority of LBJs may be the ubiquitous Song Sparrow or Dark-eyed Juncos (Little Grey Job!), local flocks of such “numerous” birds will attract random, less common, migrating species in a “safety in numbers” type of gathering.
One of my favorite (darned tootin’ I have favorites!) early season LBJ species is the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca). And measuring in at seven inches, this large sparrow often stands out within LBJ groups. Fox Sparrows are a lesson in diversity on their own—with 16 recognized subspecies in North America! Locally we see the “Red” subspecies (spp iliaca) as they make their way to breeding grounds in way northern Maine and up through Canada and west to the Hudson Bay. And while some years there may be few to zero “Red” Foxes around, conditions this spring resulted in many Redd Foxxes being observed in St. George—including five in my yard alone! A subtle and secondary harbinger of spring, Fox Sparrow migration is just one of many LBJ lessons for the learning.
White-throated Sparrows are often as numerous as they are noisy (“Pure, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”). They also add a touch of texture within LBJ flocks with their yellow lores and distinctly patterned head. Savannah Sparrows have an even subtler golden hue, while Chipping and Swamp Sparrows toss “red caps” into the LBJ world. There is a subdued beauty with LBJs that is “right in front of you” while not being “right in your face.” Nice mix.
A surprise LBJ that turned up in the yard this April was a winter-plumaged Snow Bunting. Not an uncommon visitor to the peninsula in fall and early winter, Snow Buntings are often observed in large flocks, flitting in grassy fields and marshes, especially those close to the shore. To have a solo Bunting spend an afternoon of one of the (countless) windy days, recharging and gaining energy from seeds in neighborhood driveways was a first for me. Wouldn’t argue with a repeat session any time!
Where sparrows may be the LBJs of roadsides and grasslands, forests have a set of LBJs of their own. Winter Wrens may not be a “traditional” LBJ, but they fit the profile. They are little, they are brown, they are early returners and they are surprisingly tricky to see even though they are loud and consistent. Another favorite LBJ of the forest is the Brown Creeper. Creepers return at roughly the same time as Winter Wrens, but their soft and delicate song paired with their habit of sticking close to tree trunks make them easily overlooked. Once located, watching a Brown Creeper work its way up the trunk of a tree is a delight to observe. Creepers use their stiff tail feathers for support as they search for tasty insect treats hiding in cervices in tree bark. Inching their way up, higher and higher, only to fly and land low on another tree and start the climb and search all over again.
Migration is a joy to watch in all forms, be it mammal, insect, crustacean or whatever. LBJs are a group that provides a hint about migration. A glimpse of an event that is ongoing, endless and continuously around us. And if warblers take the cake for songbird migration in northeast North America, I guess LBJs might be seen as a tasty appetizer. And some days, depending on who shows up, LBJs may even be the dessert eaten before the meal. Especially if the dessert was a chocolate chip cookie (CCC).
See you out there!
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen