Before I started traveling about our property in search of the wildlife that makes a living or simply drops by for a visit here, I really didn’t know about the variety of bird species that use the resources we have on our acreage. In particular, I was unaware of all the different species of sparrows that abound. I once thought that all the small, brownish birds were pretty much the same. But, I was wrong. They are unique in character and, if you look carefully, appearance as well. The latter quality has been far more challenging for me to assimilate. But, I’m getting better at it.
Let’s look at what I could see versus what I have seen. I created a list of sparrow species from the AllAboutBirds website. The list is specific to sparrows that might be found in my region. To take it a step further, I categorized them by the time of year they would be present on our property. Two species are found here throughout the year. The Field Sparrow and the Song Sparrow breed here in the summer months, and remain here throughout the winter, too. Six species might be seen in my region during the breeding season (summer.) Six species breed further north, but could be observed here during winter months. Four additional species may travel through my area during their Spring or Fall migration. That is a much shorter period of time than breeding or over-wintering. Such a bird might stop by for a day or two to gain some sustenance then take off again on its journey. Catching a glimpse of one of those species is far less likely than seeing a species that spends months here.
It’s important to note that the term region is a broad sweep of land where a species might be found. However, each species prefers to live in a very specific sort of ecosystem within the region. As an example, the Swamp Sparrow makes a living in “boreal bogs, sedge swamps, cattail marshes, and wet brushy meadows.” Folks who reside in cities which are within my Region may find it difficult to spot a Swamp Sparrow in their urban setting. The fact that we have a pond that has some marshy qualities may entice a Swamp Sparrow to visit here. Birds that prefer dense, mature pine forests will probably not be spotted here.
Of the eighteen possible sparrow species that spend some time in my region, I’ve been fortunate to document (mostly through photos) eleven of them! That sum is only since I began looking around in June of 2020. I still have a couple months to locate additional species before the first year of my venture has elapsed. And, let’s not forget to mention that the “venture” didn’t start out as a plan. I fell into this new hobby and didn’t really realize I was birding in my backyard until around early autumn.
Below you will find a few photos and a brief description of the species I’ve had the chance to film on our small farm. I need to reiterate, my birding venture is almost exclusively limited to our 50 acres of land in central Illinois. If you were to walk the perimeter of our land, it would be approximately a quarter mile by a quarter mile square. Fifty acres may seem like a huge parcel of property, but it isn’t really very big when you consider that folks who live in a city environment might easily walk a quarter mile to get from where they park their vehicle (or get off the public transportation) to arrive at a business or workplace. Now, consider that on all four sides of our property hundreds of acres are tilled for cash crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) and cannot possibly sustain many species of animals. So, the ones that make a living on our little island have to make their living on this island, and through jaunts to hedgerows that separate stands of our neighbors’ tilled land, or the trees that line a small creek that flows across the street from us, and mostly during the Spring thaw. It’s pretty remarkable how much life exists on our postage stamp of trees and pasture grasses.
Late, last summer I learned to distinquish the Field Sparrow’s vocalization after I first noticed a pair of birds flitting about along the eastern fenceline. The two birds were moving from the pasture grasses, the fence wire and into the tall, tassled corn on the other side of the fence. They were small in my field of view. A few days ago (early April 2021), I heard the song for the first time this season. It ends with a characteristic “dropping ping pong ball.” An hour later, I spotted this individual under the seed feeder out in the north pond meadow.
We have many Song Sparrows around our property. Below are images that were taken during that Deep Freeze in February 2021, as well as a couple of very recent pictures (early April 2021.)
A summer resident. The chestnut colored head cap and the black eye line streak is a good way to recognize these birds. The photos were taken in August 2020. The second one is of a chick and his parent. [I removed a photo I had originally posted after receiving ID assistance that it wasn’t a Chipping Sparrow…oops!]
Of the six “Breeding Season” sparrow species that I could see in this region, I’ve only been able to film one other. From quite a ways away and in very late afternoon light, I shot a small, brown bird perched on a fence in early April 2021. It turned out to be a Vesper sparrow. I’m not sure if it was just on a migration further north where it will raise a brood, or if it’s here to say the season. Of course, I’m hoping for the latter! This species has a small, chestnut patch on its shoulders and a characteristically long tail, both of which are distinguishing markings used to ID this bird.
The Eastern Towhee is a sparrow species that does breed in my region. I heard it many times last summer, and I recorded its song, as well. You will find it on my Birds In Our Backyard page.
YET TO SPOT
There are three additional sparrow species that could possibly choose to raise their next brood here at our place. One, the Grasshopper Sparrow, is hard to spit, but has a distinctive song. Yesterday, I thought I may have heard it, so I turned on the audio recording on my camera. Unfortunately we were having extremely high winds and the Grasshopper’s is a fairly soft buzzing sound which was dwarfed by the sound of the wind gusts, Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds that monopolized the distinguishable parts of the recording. But, I will hang out in that area on a calmer day and maybe lucky!
I have been lucky to have filmed all six of the sparrow species which spend the non-breeding season in my region.
AMERICAN TREE SPARROW
This species winters here, then spends the breeding season in Canada. They are very cute, and if you can see them from a front view, the spot on their chest helps to identify them. The second photo is of an Am Tree Sparrow alongside a Fox Sparrow during the Deep Freeze up on the patio eating seeds.
A welcome, winter resident, these birds often appear to be wearing “formal” attire, with their back backs and white chests. But, when I’ve been able to get super close-up shots, I see all the different, dark hues that comprise their tuxedos!
I had successfully recorded the song of a Fox Sparrow back in November 2020. I thought I saw it a few times, as well. But, a review of the photos said, “Song Sparrow” every time. The Deep Freeze of February 2021 brought many birds to the patio for available water and lots of seed and suet – including my first Fox Sparrows. Photos 2/19/2021.
On March 20, 2021, I filmed a little, brown bird near the Ponderosa Pine trees. It was a Swamp Sparrow. Again, the first time I had ever seen this species.
These highly recognizable sparrows (at least the adults with the black and white heads) are very abundant around our place. The juvenile birds sport brown head strips and can be a bit confusing with Chipping Sparrows, or even the American Tree Sparrows. The last photo that I post of this species is a juvenile that is getting his black head feathers.
Last autumn I filmed a lone, White-throated Sparrow, but didn’t see another one until the Deep Free in February 2021 when many species ventured up to the house for the water and food we offered. In early April 2021, I filmed this species under the platform feeder in the north pond meadow.
The chance to catch an image of a species that may possibly spend a day or a few on its way to or from the breeding grounds is fairly low…at least it seems that to me. But, still that’s all the reason for me to keep my eyes peeled and point and shoot my camera even if I think “oh, it’s probably just another Song Sparrow…” If I pair the short amount of time I have to see these birds with their characteristic behavior, I would have to be incredibly fortunate to see one. As an example, LeConte’s Sparrow is written to mostly forage on the ground, “often scurrying rather than flying away from danger. Even singing males rarely climb into view.” But, you can be assured that if I see it move, I’ll try to capture it on film. Below is the one species I have spotted during its migration.
I encountered my first ever Savannah Sparrow on March 3, 2021. I was quite surprised how close it permitted me to get to it before it felt pressured to fly off. I spotted it at the far south entrance to the pond area. There was a Song Sparrow singing near by, and at first that is the species I thought that I was filming. But, the yellow facial markings (which I only truly perceived after downloading the images off my SD card), are sufficiently distinctive for even a novice birder to identify this bird.
CONTINUING THE MISSION
There’s still a chance for me to see one of the three “Migration” sparrow species before they complete their travels to their breeding grounds. I also have high hopes of filming the Eastern Towhee, which I recorded singing many times summer. The tree remaining “Breeding Season” sparrow species will be tough to catch. The Grasshopper and Henslow’s species are ground dwelling birds that are rarely seen taking flight. In a few weeks the grass in our pastures will be a foot high. I will have to have Eagle eyes, but it’s possible I will see one. If so, I’ll come back to this page and update!