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Wednesday, 15 March 2006 00:00

Spring is on the wing

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Step out on the deck with your morning coffee or pause in the yard for a moment after you strap the kids in the car for the ride to school and listen.

Yep, those are birds singing. Chickadees, tufted titmouses, cardinals, towhees, song sparrows, mourning doves and robins are all in full voice in my yard.

This rise in bird songs, the slight shift in the angle of the sun’s rays, longer days, and a different feel to the wind combine to create a sense of restlessness and nostalgic anticipation in birders across the land. There is but one cure for this bird-malaise — get your binoculars and field guide and get outside.

That’s exactly what I did on March 5. I can’t remember how many foot massages I promised. A note to non-birding wives of birders — get everything in writing. A birder “jonesing” has absolutely no recall of any promises or sacred oaths. My agony must have been obvious as my wife agreed to do the tot-and-baby tango alone for a few hours that Sunday morning. Bob Olthoff and I headed for Kituwha, a.k.a. Ferguson Fields, a.k.a. Governor’s Island just outside Cherokee to look for sparrows. Kituwha is approximately 300 acres of primarily agricultural land with a small wetlands, cane thickets and fencerows along the Tuckasegee River. Believed by many to be the mother town of the Cherokee, Kituwha was purchased by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1996. It is a National Historic site.

I spoke with Brian Burgess of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, and he said birders were welcome as long as they were considerate and conscientious. Kituwha is gated and the gate is locked from dusk till dawn.

It was pretty cool (26 degrees Fahrenheit) when Bob and I got there around 8:30 a.m. We did find a hermit thrush at our first stop, but things were slow going for a while. As it began to warm up the birds became a bit more active. We wound up with about 35 species for the morning. The sparrows included field, fox, savannah, song, swamp, white-throated and white-crowned.

Bob’s great ears picked out a fox sparrow singing. We were able to track the bird down and got good looks at it. The eastern, or red fox sparrow is a large handsome sparrow with a gray crown and nape, rufous cheek patch, rufous rump and tail and large rufous spots on its breast and flanks. The song is quite musical, described by Sibley, in The Sibley Guide to Birds as “... most melodious of all sparrows.” Fox sparrows breed in Alaska and Canada so to hear one singing in Western North Carolina is a real treat.

We also got good looks at savannah sparrows. Savannahs are normally skulkers, hiding and running along the ground in deep grass and/or brushy tangles. These birds, however, flushed into trees on several occasions. Savannahs are not nearly as striking as fox sparrows, but these were in fresh plumage rather than their drab winter attire.

Singing fox sparrows and fresh savannahs are certainly harbingers of spring, but the clincher was the appearance of tree swallows. These hardy little insect hawkers are the last swallows to leave in the fall and the first to return in the spring. I imagine, anyday now, they will make it to Lake Junaluska, where they often usurp bluebird boxes around the lake for nesting. Tree swallows with their iridescent blue-green backs and clear white under-parts are a treat to watch skimming over the lake.

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