Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Seasons Fly By

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Seasons Fly By

Article excerpt

Watching for birds on an October hike through local woodlands, I glimpsed both a reminder of summer and a harbinger of winter.

The reminder: an American tree sparrow. Startled by my leaf- crunching footsteps, the sparrow rose from Anchorage's Turnagain Arm Trail and shot into a thick stand of alders. Even 10 days ago, the bird would have vanished quickly from sight. But now that the alders had dropped their green, brittle leaves, I was able to see deep into the thicket.

Perched on a branch inside the tangled branches, the bird sat motionless to avoid detection. At first I guessed it to be a pine siskin or common redpoll, two small, sparrowlike finches that inhabit this birch, spruce, and cottonwood forest in growing numbers as fall fades into winter. Lifting binoculars to my eyes, I discovered my error. I saw the tree sparrow's rusty crown, gray head, and gray breast with its signature dark spot.

Siskins and redpolls are among my favorite songbirds. But on this day, I was happily surprised, instead, to share the trail with a sparrow. Most sparrows are headed south by mid- to late September. I hike this trail regularly and keep eyes and ears alert to birds and their calls, but I hadn't noticed a sparrow in weeks.

Just a few minutes before seeing the tree sparrow, I'd been granted another rare October sighting: four pine grosbeaks - the harbingers of winter. Feeding on high-bush cranberries, the grosbeaks flushed higher into the forest canopy on my approach, making them easy to view.

Like siskins and redpolls, grosbeaks are finches. But they're considerably larger birds. Upon seeing one in silhouette, I initially assumed the bird to be a robin. Robins, like sparrows, are migratory songbirds. But they stay here later into autumn, and I'd periodically spotted some along this trail throughout the fall; so it didn't seem unusual to meet a few.

Then, again, binoculars clarified my vision. Mostly gray, with a thick, stubby bill and a yellowish-orange head, the bird was clearly a female pine grosbeak. …

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