“Nothing ever happens in February”…bird-wise…a quote from Michael Shepard, my ancient birding friend.
He says this because every migrant, whether latitudinally or altitudinally, has stopped moving – for the most part. Winter has set in and the birds that wanted to get away to lower elevations or southern climes have done so. The ones that are here now are our winter residents.
Which puts birders in the doldrums… What you see out your window or on your walk is what you get. Now every species is just doing their best to survive.
So what’s left? Go down to Manson’s lagoon or Squirrel Cove or Cortes Bay dock and ply your binoculars over the waters. All our winter residents are here: Scoters, Goldeneye, Buffleheads, Scaups and Grebes. There’ll be some sparrows about. The commonest is the Song Sparrow, followed by the Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned, White-crowned and, if you’re careful and lucky, the Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrows. Naturally, real odd balls like White-throated and Harris’s sparrows are always a possibility… but, let me put it this way – I’ve never seen them in 30 years! Which means they are there for you to find! Please take a picture. Even a fuzzy picture can set the record straight!
So let me focus on separating the field marks of our two commonest sparrows, the Song and Fox. The Song Sparrow is smaller, dark chocolate brown all over, and heavily striped on a grey breast. It also has very noticeable grey stripes on the top of the head. When it sings, it starts with a classic “Sweet-Sweet-Sweet” followed by a “diddle-diddle-wheet”. They key is those first three notes. It’s a year round resident and common. For the song go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Song_sparrow/sounds.
The Fox Sparrow is also very dark chocolate brown all over but 25% bigger. Its back is not striped and the breast is made up of small patches of brown on a grey breast that lines up in rows – not ‘striped’ like the Song. Its head is uniform in colour, very round looking, and has no stripes at all. AND, if you can see the lower mandible (beak) – it’s yellow! It is common in winter, with populations migrating down the coast, joining our resident birds, then in spring going north again, leaving a much smaller population of residents behind.
There occurs a ‘leap-frogging’ of populations in migration. Birds that nest in Alaska don’t just come down to Vancouver Island, they skip this area and go straight to California for the winter. (See distribution map.) “…later breeding northerly populations (Alaska) minimize the cost of spring migration by wintering in California, where food availability improves in early spring, enhancing conditions for pre-migratory fattening.” ( for full paper see the article in Condor…http://www.jstor.org/stable/1369953?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). Our migrating Fox Sparrows have actually come from roughly the local Vancouver Island area, where food supplies are more limited than here. The mid coast population i.e. ‘The Great Bear Rainforest’ zone go to Oregon!
Their song is very sweet and I suggest going to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Fox_Sparrow/sounds. Play the Alaskan version. You’ll see the picture of the Fox Sparrow (and Song Sparrow) in Cornell’s website is NOTHING like I described. That’s because those are eastern birds and are very much like a Fox! The further west you go, the darker the birds. With the darkest being found on the west coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. This is very obvious in the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers as well, with eastern species being very white and black and western being a “sooty” white and black.
So take advantage of the doldrums in bird migration and get to know the Fox and Song sparrows. But very soon our first Red-winged Blackbirds will be arriving leading off the Charge of the Migrants!