Slow Birding Here

(Burrowing Owl Update Below)

Young White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

The NY Times last week reviewed a book by Joan Strassmann with the title “Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard.”

Slow birding, a term she adapted from the slow food movement, is not checklist-driven bird-watching, which may feel almost competitive, as if mandating that more is better, and rarer is best. For a slow birder — and Dr. Strassmann considers herself one — the payoff is not a longer life list, but connecting with and gaining insight into our inner circle of everyday birds.

“When someone asks what new or exciting birds I have seen on my morning walk, I smile and answer with delight as I name the commonest birds,” she writes.

I’ve only read the review, but I definitely relate to that. Yes, I do take delight when someone like Jack Hayden or Edwin Wu spots a rara avis in the park. But that isn’t what drives my interest every day. The more I see and photograph, the more I feel part of a wild community. As I get to know its everyday members, I begin to see how very special and talented many of them are, including the ones we think of as most ordinary. Sparrows, for example. I’ve delighted in photographing sparrows, not only when they look pretty in the evening light (“Sparrow at Sunset,” Dec 24 2020) but also when they’re hard at work foraging on the ground, like this young White-crowned.

When I first saw one like this, it drove me crazy. I thought it had to be a Golden-crowned, but that just didn’t fit. Finally I stumbled on photos of the juvenile White-crowned and realized, hey, this one’s still a kid. The rusty stripes on its head will turn black and white as it matures.

Every time I see one, I puzzle whether it’s a local or a migrant. The bird authorities say there’s a subspecies of them (Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli ) that breeds year round in a thin strip up and down along the Pacific Coast. Is that this bird? Or is this bird one of the legions that migrate from the farthest northern regions of North America, flying thousands of miles? The migrants fly an average of 70 miles a night, but some have been recorded at more than 300 miles in one night. They can almost certainly navigate by the earth’s magnetic field, among other method of orientation. They are amazing birds.

I’ve posted items about White-crowned Sparrows two dozen times on this blog, and only three of these were in the summer: One in June, one in July, one in August. All the rest in fall, winter, early spring. The odds, then, are that this young sparrow hatched out of the egg in northern Alaska in May, had the benefit of ample feeding by both parents, and successfully learned to fly. It started its virgin migration in late September, probably in the company of 8-10 others, and took its time getting here. Judging by its nice round belly, it seems to be doing well. If it can avoid the occasional visits by a Merlin and similar raptors, it will be in good shape to make the return migration next spring. Or perhaps it will meet with some locals and decide to stay on the Northern California coast. We’d understand.

Burrowing Owl Update

This morning the Burrowing Owl moved from Perch A to Perch B, near the big Fennel bush, where park visitors could see it from the paved perimeter path outside the “art” fence. I set up my camera on the tall tripod again, started video recording, and stepped away for 20 minutes On the sound track of this selected minute, you can hear another photographer approach and take two photos. A bit later a runner jogs by. The owl ignores them both. During the time that I filmed it, the bird seemed relaxed and alert, occasionally shutting its eyelids halfway or a bit more, but always remaining tuned in to what was happening around it. The calendar of its movements is available on this spreadsheet as a challenge to puzzlemasters and statisticians to try to predict where the owl will perch next.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) Dec. 23 2022

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One thought on “Slow Birding Here

  • I love your interest in our most common birds and how they spur your growing knowledge of the park and nature in general!

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