Making a Case for Sparrows

Inspired by poet Merrill Gilfillan

In the birding world, there are a variety of groups of birds that present classic identification challenges. There are the gulls and terns, the flycatchers and the sparrows, to name some of the more notorious. Sparrows are not just challenging but are often viewed as worth so little attention that they become LBJ’s, Little Brown Jobs.

Sparrows can be hard to find, difficult to identify and often lack the splashy colors of other groups of birds, like the warblers. However sparrows have some defining characteristics that make their study full of not only challenges but the commensurate rewards as well.  First, to be clear, what are we talking about when we say sparrows?

The sparrows I’m referencing are from the Order Passeriformes, the songbirds. Within this large group there are the 64 North American members of the family Emberizidae, that include new world sparrows, juncos, towhees, buntings and longspurs.

Sparrows offer a subtle beauty that, like many of life’s pleasures, are an acquired taste. From a palette of gray, brown, red and an occasional splash of yellow comes an infinite number of hues. These endless fine distinctions remind me of the Gambel Oaks in the Colorado Foothills. No match for the glory of a Vermont fall, each autumn they nonetheless offer an inspiring study in how endless variation can also reach the sublime.

Sparrows are also egalitarian. One need not be able to afford a tropical vacation to pursue them. They exist in vacant lots, backwoods and city parks as well as in wilderness haunts far from the trappings of human beings. Many have the pluck to stick it out through tough northern winters, making their pursuit possible year round.

Many sparrows offer a surprise bonus: they are supreme songsters. The haunting song of the White-crowned Sparrow at 12,000 feet, treeline, in the Rocky Mountains, the diverse repertoire of Song Sparrows as males square off in singing duels in neighborhood wetlands, the vocal gymnastics performed by Lark Sparrows, sounding like the special effects soundtrack from Star Wars out on the short grass prairie and the tireless song of a Vesper Sparrow singing from a fence in the back pasture.

Finally, sparrows are the true underdog.  Jesus himself is quoted as noting, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? He then gives them a little shout-out by adding, Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. Who knew I would have Jesus backing me up in my pursuit of sparrows?

Besides divine guidance, I think there is a natural human inclination to root for the underdog.  It is the great American story really; the scruffy kid from nowhere who makes it with nothing more than his own gumption. Sparrows certainly don’t have much of a current fan base, but the more I learn, the more I pursue them, the more I have come to appreciate them.

So here’s to the sparrow, the mysterious in the common place; the blue collar bird worthy of a second look. To help launch anyone, who’ll take me up on this quixotic quest, I am including some portraits of a few of my favorites.

hSONY DSCHarris’s Sparrow. These sparrows nest in some of the harshest terrain on the edge of the Canadian Tundra. Occasionally a few winter in Colorado but typically they prefer the midwest. Photo: Gloria Nikolai

Diversity in the Chiricahuas, Reptiles and Amphibians of the Sky Islands

On a recent break from Colorado I had the amazing opportunity to explore the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona. These scattered mountain ranges, separated from one another by grassland and desert, are incredibly biodiverse. With plant and animal species representatives from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts as well as the Rocky and Sierra Madre Mountains, this is a biological crossroads.
Most of my time was spent at the Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains where I participated in their annual Herpetology of the Southwest, a ten day workshop focusing on the reptiles and amphibians of the Chiricahua Mountains and the surrounding desert and grasslands.
This intense ten day course, combined lectures, labs and mostly field work. With all the appropriate permits in place, we were able to find and photograph 56 species of reptiles and amphibians. On my own in the Santa Rita Mountains, after the course ended, I was able to add one more.
One could easily be stunned by the world renowned variety of birds, beetles, ants and/or bats and the list goes on. Below are a few photographic highlights.

Flower Power

I am walking along a treeless expanse, though at over 12,000 feet in elevation this isn’t the prairie but rather the Alpine life zone. It is July so I am blessed with an incredible riot of wildflowers erupting in a rainbow of colors. White-crowned Sparrows’ ethereal songs issue from stunted conifers, or Krummholz, on the periphery and Yellow-bellied Marmots whistle from rock piles.
Treeline typically begins at 12,000 feet in Colorado, but it is a ragged, uneven line beyond which trees cannot survive and varies due to latitude as well. Nights are cold, even in July, as my wife and I recently found out camping near the summit of Cottonwood Pass. Clouds, rain and wind rolled by nearly all day adding to the spectacle. However, it was the flowers that stole the show. Plants here have a short window of time to go through their life cycle and mid-July is typically the peak of the season.
With binoculars for wildlife, a camera and a copy of the classic Guennel’s “Guide to Colorado Wildflowers, Vol 2: Mountains” I was set. This classic has close up photographs of flowers and illustrations of the plant. (I managed to procure the last copy from The Book Nook in Buena Vista before we headed up.)
Here are some photographic highlights, including those flowers whose identification I feel pretty confident about. Visits are always too short as is the season, but get up there while you can and you won’t be disappointed!

Alpine Forget-Me-Not
Alpine Forget-Me-Not
Parry Primrose
Parry Primrose
Colorado Columbine
Colorado Columbine
Rosy Paintbrush
Rosy Paintbrush
Silky Phacelia
Silky Phacelia
King's Crown
King’s Crown
Western Paintbrush
Western Paintbrush
White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Marmots
Yellow-bellied Marmots
Colorado Trail at Cottonwood Pass
Colorado Trail at Cottonwood Pass

A Season of Bird Song

It is 4:30am and dark outside my open bedroom window. A Robin is singing its familiar sing-song morning wake-up call. Like all songbirds they only sing during a short season, so I lie awake and enjoy the ephemeral treat.
Songbirds, or properly the Order of birds known as Passeriformes, make up over half of the roughly 10,000 bird species now known worldwide. They are a large and unwieldy group with the odd unifying characteristic of three toes pointing forward and one backward, helping them to perch on branches.
What has made them so endearing to humanity is the ability of many of these songbirds to sing elaborate songs. In the temperate zone where I live in Colorado, they do so during a relatively short season, stretching from April-July with prime-time being May and June. Male songbirds (mostly it is the males who sing) sing to announce territories which they defend from other males while inviting females to breed. Once the nesting season ends, so does the time of bird song.
Visit a mountain lake, a prairie grassland, or a suburban backyard anywhere across the country and you can be sure to find a unique soundscape made up of that area’s singing birds. Listen as males from neighboring territories joust back and forth in extended singing duels. Learn the songs and you are entering a world of secret language, drama and intrigue.
A great resource to explore birds and their songs is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website: This site not only provides a variety of background info and pictures of North American birds but also has recordings you can listen to of each species’ distinctive songs, calls and other vocalizations.

The Snake Den

Depending on who you are, finding a snake den can be the stuff of nightmares or the find of a lifetime. I, of course, fall into the latter category. As a child I grew up in the hilly forests of Western Pennsylvania, at the north end of the Appalachian Mountains. My friends and I were always on the lookout for Box Turtles, Garter Snakes, Salamanders and a rare find would be a Black Rat Snake, like the 5 footer which showed up on my suburban front lawn one summer day.

I can remember my father, suite coat over his shoulder on this steamy day, telling me to not leave my snakes laying around in the yard. I had no idea what he was talking about until he pointed out in the front yard to inform me that there was a huge black snake in our front yard. I didn’t even let him finish his sentence before I was out the front door like a shot. There it was, the holy grail of childhood snakes, gleaming black and trying to get into the bushes. I grabbed him by the tail, maneuvered him into the middle of the yard and after getting a pretty good bite, leaving a horseshoe of tiny pin pricks of blood, I had him under control. Up the street I ran to show my friend Tommy Gallagher my find. But in all those years, I never found a snake den.

Fast forward to November 2014, hiking in Garden of the Gods near my current home. Two garter snakes are basking on an unseasonably warm day. I’d never seen them out this late, and was amazed by the enormous size of one of the snakes, surely a female. When they saw me, they slithered away under a huge boulder. Bingo! No snake would be out basking at this time of year without having their den close by. I remember seeing a rattlesnake in this vicinity last year and it is common for mixed species to share a den, the place where they will hibernate through the winter.

Dozens of snakes might share a den as the conditions they need to survive a winter are not always easy to find. Whether it is amongst rocks or in a rodent den, snakes need to get below the frost line to survive a northern winter. It is theorized that by sharing a den, they also help keep the environment more humid through their respiration and thus dehydrate more slowly.

This spring my vigilance in visiting the den repeatedly paid off with a sighting of two tiny, first year rattlesnakes, basking outside the den. Born live last fall, the two were tiny but fully armed with fangs and venom. Both were very close to entrances so they could beat a hasty retreat if need be. Snakes will disperse in the spring, sometimes a couple of miles distant, before returning in the fall.  They are key predators, keeping rodent populations in check. Despite their sinister reputation they much prefer not being discovered and will rattle only to warn when they feel a person or animal is too close.

Prairie Rattlesnakes are found throughout the midwest and western US and from northern Mexico to southern Canada. They are members of the Viper Family and have sophisticated sensory adaptations to help them hunt small mammals, like their heat seeking pits.

To learn more about these fascinating creatures, check out the book: Amphibians and Reptiles in Colorado, by Geoffrey Hammerson, the bible of Colorado herping (herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians).

Birds, Migration and Weather

The first annual Pikes Peak Birding and Nature Festival is in the books. Besides learning about the complexities of organizing such a multi-faceted event, I also learned a little about how weather affects bird migration.

I’ll skip any attempt here to dive into meteorology for the simple reason that I know only the basics. What is undeniable though, is that cold and unsettled weather impacts bird migration dramatically.

Every spring, billions of birds engage in the largest movement of land animals on the planet. My ringside seat for this event is a small farm, just south of Colorado Springs, Venetucci Farm/Pinello Ranch. These 500 acres border Fountain Creek and are in the middle of a migration corridor. Most of the 198 species of birds seen there are migrants.

This year’s combination of rain, hail and cold halted the progress of many of these migrants resulting in incredible numbers of species. On both May 9 & 10 we saw over 70 species of birds at Pinello Ranch. Other trips to area hotspots, like Lake Pueblo, Big Johnson Reservoir and others posted incredible totals of 98 and even 124 bird species, for one far ranging outing.

What is clear is that birds operate on the slimmest of margins and many don’t survive migration. Enough do to give a survival advantage to those who migrate. With survival on the line, weather plays a huge role in bird migration patterns. For an in depth treatment of the timing of migration, check out this amazing site from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

The Fragile Birth of a Heronry

Venetucci Farm’s and Pinello Ranch’s wild corners continue to yield surprises as we work to tell the evolving story of these community treasures. The latest discovery, by volunteer Gloria Nikolai, is of a Great Blue Heron Rookery. These nesting colonies, properly called a Heronry, are often times built in dead trees and almost always near wetlands or ponds. Adjacent to the heronry, a pond now exists in a wooded section of Venetucci Farm thanks to the efforts of some industrious beavers. Natural springs flow through Pinello Ranch creating two large ponds and a mosaic of wetland habitat before reaching the beaver pond and then flowing into Fountain Creek.
As the spring flow is seasonal, one of the challenges we face is keeping water in the system when the spring stops flowing, usually mid-summer into fall. Last year the beaver pond completely dried up as did cattail sloughs and even portions of the larger ponds at Pinello. The ponds, sloughs and wetlands are at the core of the incredibly productive wildlife habitat at Venetucci/Pinello.
For over 40 years the ponds had been kept going by filling them with irrigation water. Now that it has been determined that that violates water law, we are scrambling to find ways in which we can keep the water flowing. At Venetucci Farm we seek to provide healthy food and connect people to the source of that food. We strive to produce that food “in a way that conserves, protects, and restores the natural environment”, as we state in our mission statement.
Keeping the flow of water going is one way in which we honor our mission. It means allowing beavers, herons and a host of other creatures to continue to thrive right on the edge of the city. We seek to share this story of how wildlife and agriculture can exist synergistically, through our education programs. It is one more amazing facet of the ever-changing and unique community assets known as Venetucci Farm and Pinello Ranch.