Christmas came a few days early in the form of another potential lifer for me when Dan Bone phoned to advise me of a Harris’s Sparrow coming to a private feeder in the Kawarthas. Asking if I would be “at all interested” in joining him and a few others on Christmas Eve day to see this unexpected visitor who should be wintering in the central region of the United States, I reluctantly declined but secretly prayed that it would still be in attendance on Boxing Day. Thankfully, it was, not only for me but for several others whose Big Year was quickly drawing to a close.
My interest in birding began only five years ago but has quickly developed into a passion, and, if nothing else, I have learned to expect the unexpected in nature and that timing is everything. Recent examples of One Week Wonders (or less!) include Whitby harbour’s Smew in 2011, Presqu’ile Provincial Park’s Thick-billed Kingbird and Oshawa’s Western Tanager in 2012, so my initial fear was that this Harris’s Sparrow would fall into this category, but at the time of writing, it is still enjoying a Canadian winter at an extremely well-stocked feeder in a sheltered yard, amongst numerous American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and the occasional Evening Grosbeak.
There was no immediate sign of the Harris’s Sparrow on Boxing Day when John Stirrat and I first arrived at the feeders with Susan Blayney, but we didn’t have to wait too long as we briefly saw it tucked away in some bushes, but clear views of it eluded us.
With more patience and the generous hospitality of the kind property owners who invited us into the warmth of their home, we quickly learned what to expect if there was a total absence of birds: wait and watch for American Tree Sparrows to fly back in, one by one, then wait for them to drop down to the ground, also one by one. Eventually the chunky Harris’s Sparrow would surreptitiously arrive, usually staying somewhat concealed in the bushes, but, with time, it would venture out into the open, affording better views as it foraged on the ground. At times during my second visit there, two days later, as part of the Kawartha Christmas Bird Count, it amused us by creating a snowy landscape, madly kicking away at the snow to forage for seeds using an effective “double-scratch” technique.
The Harris’s Sparrow (as well as the Harris’s Hawk) was so named by John James Audubon after his friend Edward Harris, an American amateur birder. It is also one of only two Canadian breeding endemics (the other is the Ross’s Goose) and is quite a striking sparrow, especially when in breeding plumage, with its black crown, face and throat. Based on the amount of black on its throat, this particular Kawarthan individual is an adult, and despite its non-breeding plumage was really quite lovely to see against a pure white backdrop of snow.
By coincidence two days later, I discovered a Durham region connection with this species when Doug Lockrey and I stopped in at Betty Pegg’s home in Claremont during our Pickering Christmas Bird Count. Chance would have it that Edge (co-founder of the Pickering Naturalists) and Betty Pegg also had an over-wintering Harris’s Sparrow at their feeders for five months, between December, 1998, and May, 1999. Almost three hundred birders that year had views of it, and Edge and Betty were awarded a letter of recognition from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, signed by then-President Jean Iron, which was included in the photo album shared by Betty.
The Harris’s Sparrow is now officially my 301st species since I began listing, as well as the best bird of the Kawartha Christmas Bird Count for 2012, not to mention the most unexpected!
Dan's notes, as my OFO News editor: Since Janice wrote this story the Harris’s Sparrow has disappeared. Perhaps it just moved on or maybe the Sharp-shinned Hawk got it, but it has not been seen since early Sunday morning, January 6, 2013. It was first observed on December 22, 2012.
Despite the no-posting agreement and through the cooperation and trust of a network of birders, 15 birders recorded it as a life bird. Kevin Shackleton got it for #299 on his Ontario big year list and #970 on his life list. It is a new bird for the official City of Kawartha Lakes checklist. At least one birder completed the zonotrichia quartet for Ontario. (Can you imagine such a musical quartet? The Golden-crowned Sparrow could sing bass-- the White-throated Sparrow would carry the air, as it always does.)
If the bird had stayed longer, a controlled-visit strategy was in place to include many more birders. The property owners did not want the bird to be posted for security reasons as the secluded residence could not be seen from the road and the driveway was narrow, winding and uphill with restricted parking. The strategy consisted of arranged visits at set times with parking away from the residence and carpooling in to reduce parking pressure. A member of the Kawartha Field Naturalists club was always on hand at the parking area to guide the groups to the feeder.
The property owners and all visitors had a very positive experience. All agreed they would use this strategy again in similar situations.