Tuesday, October 16, 2007


This is the very same eastern phoebe I thought I heard during the Big Sit.

If I were a person of lower moral fiber than I am (if that's even possible), I would now be crowing to you that we broke our Big Sit record after all! Yep! It's true! We got 66* species!!!!


Well, during the Sit I heard what I took to be a very het-up eastern phoebe chipping in the side yard. We always hear phoebes over there this time of year--plenty of insects on warm afternoons and evenings and lots of great hunting perches from which a flycatcher can sally forth.

I heard this chip note in the morning and several times in the afternoon. Each time I called out "I think I hear a phoebe chipping!" But no phoebe ever appeared. And when a phoebe is around, you see it--they aren't shy and retiring woodland flycatchers, like the members of the Empidonax family. Phoebes perch on the wires, on the fence, on the roof, on the deck railing, all the while wagging their tails up and down. You ALWAYS see a phoebe if one is around.

But I could never get my eyes on an actual phoebe. Still the chip went on intermittently. I thought it might be a palm warbler, which has a pretty loud, sharp chip note for a warbler. And someone (named Jim McCormac) mentioned swamp sparrow during the course of the day in the context of birds we had not yet seen. Late in the evening on Big Sit Day +1, I was talking to Jeff Gordon and mentioned hearing a phoebe chip but not seeing it. He said "Yeah, their chip note sounds like several other chip notes. I think they can sound a little like swamp sparrows."

It still was not registering in the cold bowl of porridge that passes for my brain.

So this morning, Julie and I were sitting in the front yard for a few minutes, after launching the kids onto the school bus, and I heard it again.

"There's that dang phoebe again! The one that wouldn't show itself for the Big Sit. Doesn't it KNOW we named our first child Phoebe?"

Julie: "I'm not sure that's a phoebe. It might be a palm warbler."

She went to look while I sat aimlessly sipping my cold coffee, letting it dribble down my chin onto my beggar-tick-covered sweatpants.

"I just saw its tail and rump as it flew away! I think it's a swamp sparrow!" she shouted.

I was up and after the bird.

Sure enough. It popped up into view and gave about nine of its trademarked chips. At this close range they sounded sharper, more emphatic and metallic than the phoebe's chip. And more robust than the palm warbler's.

SWAMP SPARROW. And it's the same bird (probably) that was chipping on Sunday.
It would have been species #66 for us, had I been tuned-in to the possibility.

Swamp sparrow image by Mike McDowell from BirdDigiscoping.com

That's what's great about bird watching. You never know WHAT'S going to show up (or not show up).

So I'll list this year's total as 65. But I really want to list it as 66* (with an asterisk). Barry Bonds and Roger Maris got their baseball records recorded with an asterisk. There were no performance-enhancing drugs used in our Big Sit (that I KNOW of--the drug testing results are not yet in). Honest, we thought it was just flaxseed oil....

What's the lesson here? While you're keeping your eyes and ears open, it's a good idea to keep you mind open, too.

* Species #66 (swamp sparrow) was heard during The Big Sit! but not identified by any member of the Big Sit circle during this very special event (An event so special in fact that it has its own exclamation point!). No punctuation was harmed in the creation of this *%$#@#@ blog post!

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