A flit of gray and brown through the brush recently caught the attention of some very sharp-eyed birders in Luray: a Harris’s Sparrow (Zenotrichia querula), a very rare sighting in the Shenandoah Valley, was spotted on the banks of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River at the White House Farm. This sparrow is unusual as it normally spends its winters in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas so to be seen 1000 miles east is very exciting. The Harris’s Sparrow is the only sparrow that breeds in Canada and nowhere else and is notable in being the largest sparrow in North America.
“It’s always difficult to say for sure why birds show up out of range but western birds of a variety of species have a tendency to show up occasionally in the east in the late fall and early winter. In most cases these are young birds that likely aren’t quite as good as navigating as adult birds, and since the prevailing winds in the fall tend to go from the northwest to the southeast they sometimes get pushed further east than they were intending. This bird appears to be a first winter bird so that’s probably what happened in this case” says James Fox, local birder.
The Harris’s Sparrow may be visiting relatives for the holidays, enjoying the company of the White-throated and White-crowned Sparrow which Mr. Fox notes are its closest relatives in the east and are often seen in the fields at the White House Farm.
It is very exciting to host this special bird species and others by providing healthy habitat in the riparian buffer. Beginning in 2005 when he purchased the historic farm, owner Scott C. Plein, began implementing conservation measures including fencing cattle off from the river, planting native warm season grasses and wildflowers and installing native trees and shrubs along the river trail. As a result more bird species are being noted at the farm, due in part to more caterpillars, which use the native vegetation as host plants and, along with native berries and seeds, provide food for both migratory and year-round avian residents.
Another birder, Dixie Sommers, emailed us after visiting to say ‘thanks for what you are doing to restore the riparian habitat. I came down from Alexandria today to find the Harris’s Sparrow (successful! A life bird[i]). There were also lots of other sparrows and other species. This is possible because of the restoration and management you are doing. Birds and Birders say thank you!’
Asked if the bird will stick around for the winter, Mr. Fox noted that ‘once a bird like this is out of range, it often isn’t worth the effort for it to try to fly all the way to its normal wintering range as long as it can find enough food and shelter. The area it’s in right now is great habitat so I expect it will remain for the winter and then migrate back to its normal summer range in the spring’.
We are very pleased this species has found its way to the farm and hope it does indeed choose to stay for the winter.
[i] Life bird: a species in the wild seen for the first time by someone counting total number of species spotted and identified.
For more images of the Harris’s Sparrow seen at the White House Farm, check out Marshall Faintich’s website.