I was walking along our rural road, enjoying the sunshine and abnormally warm temperatures for January. I stopped often to look and listen for birds. One particular area caught my interest for some reason, maybe because I don't normally pay much attention to this particular spot, or maybe I caught some special birdie vibes. I saw movement in the grass, heard some Song Sparrows and saw some other sparrows that I couldn't make out well enough to positively identify. Then I heard a chip note that caught my ear. At first I thought it was an Eastern Phoebe, which would have been a really cool find for this time of year. Once I got my binoculars on the culprit, though, I realized it was a Swamp Sparrow. I was especially excited about this because this was a new find for me along our road.
What was more intriguing to me, though, was the fact that I had been tricked by this Phoebe-sounding chip note just about a week ago while doing the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My neighborhood habitat is very similar to that of our CBC Swamp Sparrow habitat: close to a creek, with lots of overgrown grasses in a low-lying area that's known to get wet (and stay wet) after too much rain, and with moderate but spotty tree density. When we first heard the "chip!" during the count, our group leader, Jim McCormac, thought it was a Phoebe. The closer we got to the source, though, the less convinced we were that it was actually a Phoebe. It eventually dawned on Jim that it was more likely to be a Swamp Sparrow. While we never actually saw the bird in question that day, after comparing recordings of a Phoebe "chip" to that of a Swamp Sparrow "chip," all 3 of us agreed that what we were hearing was a Swamp Sparrow.
Swamp Sparrow in winter plumage. Photo by Kevin Bearcaw, via Wikipedia
Sure enough, I was being confronted with the same situation on my home turf. Only this time I got to see the bird. I even went so far as to walk back home and get my spotting scope so that I could get a really good grasp of what this bird looked like. To look at it, it seems like not a very exciting bird, unless you like trying to categorize different hues of brown, rust and grey. I have to admit that I would be hard pressed to identify this bird by looks alone simply because I haven't seen very many of them. (I can tell you a Song Sparrow from a White-throated from a White-crowned from a House, but that's about the extent of my ability to ID sparrows on sight. They don't get the nickname "Little Brown Jobs" (or LBJs) for nothing!)
Swamp Sparrows winter in southern Ohio, but it seems few stick around these parts for breeding season. Preliminary data from the recently completed 2nd Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (2006-2011) show, however, a handful of confirmed breeding locations in the southern 3rd of the state. This is in stark contrast to the last Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (1982-1987), which shows possible and confirmed nesting only in the northern 2/3's of the state. Having now seen (and heard) this bird in my own neighborhood during winter, I will now be keeping a watchful eye out for a possible breeding record this coming summer. Now THAT would be exciting!