Thursday, September 17, 2009

The first White-throated Sparrow + PS from Tom

White-throated Sparrow, 12/17/06
Photo courtesy of

White-throated sparrows are easy to find in Central Park during the fall and winter. There are hundreds of them, maybe thousands, to be seen throughout the park, scratching around in the leaf litter in search of seeds and an occasional spider or millipede.

Sometimes in winter you can catch fragments of the White-throated Sparrow's haunting song. As spring approaches you begin to hear the entire melody: Old-Sam-Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, or Oh-Sweet- Canada, Canada, Canada, as it is variously transliterated. The tune is in a minor key. It has a doleful sound, though it is the bird's breeding song and thus the emotions it represents are more lustful than mournful.

Every year towards the end of April the number of whitethroats in Central Park slowly diminishes. And by early May they are gone. Not a single Zonotrichia albicollis to be seen. They have gone to their breeding-grounds far to the north of us. Many nest throughout Canada's boreal forests. Some even breed in the Arctic Circle.

Nobody pays much attention to these sparrows when they leave Central Park, because their disappearance coincides with the glorious spectacle of Spring Migration. Who would search for this brown little bird with its striped head and, yes, white throat, when there are scarlet tanagers and prothonotary warblers and yellow-billed cuckoos to be found?

When whitethroats start trickling back to Central Park at the end of their breeding season nobody pays them much attention either. They begin to arrive just as the Fall Migration nears its peak.. Again the park's woodlands are full of warblers, tanagers, vireos and flycatchers making their way to their wintering grounds in the south.

But when all the migrants are gone, in mid-October or so, then the hey-day of the White-throated Sparrow begins. They too have made their Fall Migration, but they weren't bound for Alabama or Georgia, Mexico or Panama or South America. When they get to Central Park that's it -- they've arrived. This is their wintering grounds.

That's why every year Central Park's regular birdwatching community [as compared to the Migratory Birdwatchers, who only show up for the Spring and Fall Migrations] eagerly await the first White-throated Sparrow of the season.

Last year Jack Meyer found the first one on August 9th . The bird was scratching around the wooded area at the edge of Strawberry Fields. Jack takes an early morning bird walk in the park virtually every day from January through December. It's not surprising that he'd be the one to discover this year's first whitethroat too.

Jack made the sighting on September 17, 2009 -- that is, today!. This time he and a little group of fellow birdwatchers saw the bird in the little wooded area in the Ramble known as Muggers Woods. Since nobody has encountered a mugger in Muggers Woods for decades [perhaps ever], I propose that the location be renamed Whitethroat Woods in honor of this morning's welcome arrival.

PS Tom Fiore sends in a correction and a clarification:


There were a few arrivals of white-throated sparrows by yesterday [9/16] as well. Also there have been a couple of them spending the entire summer almost every year for some time, definitely not breeding but staying in the park all thru the summer months of June, July & August. There have been a few doing so in the Ramble some years and perhaps more regularly in the north woods.