The other backyard birds: Not in plain sight

A white-throated sparrow. Photo by Jeanne Church.

By Jeanne Church

Our second-story deck offers the perfect perch for photographing birds in the nearby trees – but I didn’t always know that. I used to think that I would scare them all away if I stood in plain sight, that I would need to hide inside a bird blind in order to get any pictures at all. Eventually, though, I discovered that if I just stood still long enough, I’d become invisible! The birds would no longer notice me and I could get a multitude of pictures at very close range. This remained my favorite birding spot for quite a long time.

At some point, though, I decided to move my little “photo studio” UNDER the deck. I had been wondering what the “downstairs birds” were doing; the ones I couldn’t see from the upper deck unless I leaned over the railing. I thought a change of scenery might do me good, but didn’t expect any surprises, just a different point of view.

I set my camera up on a tripod, as I had on the deck above, and prepared for a long wait. Usually, it takes the birds 20 minutes or more to return after I’ve startled them with my presence. Slowly, they fluttered back and landed on the snow in front of me gobbling up the sunflower seeds that had fallen from the overhead feeders. All the “regulars” were there – cardinals, juncos and jays, but what were those other birds? One of them was about the size of a large sparrow, with reddish feathers on its back and very distinctive triangular markings on its snowy white chest. What the heck was that?

Whenever I see a bird I’ve never photographed before, my heart skips a beat and I momentarily hold my breath as I grip the camera firmly and take aim – hoping that my settings are right and that the bird won’t fly away before I take the shot!

The bird in question that day turned out to be a fox sparrow – so named because of its beautiful fox-colored feathers. These birds are only here in Michigan for a short period of time during the winter as they migrate north to their breeding grounds in the far reaches of Canada and Alaska.

If you want to attract them to your yard, fox sparrows are mostly ground feeders and they will happily clean up the seeds under your feeders if you have a place nearby for them to hide – like bushes or brush piles.

Another bird I spotted that day, but have also never seen at my feeders, was a white-throated sparrow. It’s a relatively easy bird to identify with its little white “bib” and distinctive head markings (black and white stripes on top and small patches of yellow on each side of the bill).

According to the Cornell Lab’s website “All About Birds,” white-throated sparrows will readily visit feeders – but they’ve never visited mine! It also says that white-throated sparrows “stay near the ground”. It must be that my second story feeders are too high for them; that they feel too vulnerable up there. These birds, like their cousins the fox sparrows, prefer to be close to the ground and will eat the seeds that have fallen there – but only if they have nearby bushes where they can take refuge.

So, if you’ve been focusing all your attention on the birds up in the trees and on the feeders in front of you, take a moment to look at who might be hanging out down below! You might be pleasantly surprised! Be sure to grab your binoculars, though. Lots of those little birds look exactly alike from far away!

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