Sparrows, sparrows, everywhere!
I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for sparrows. Often overlooked by people, and underappreciated by many, written off as “just” sparrows by birders, or “just” a brown bird by people in general, I think they do warrant more glory.
Here in Canada, we actually have quite a few species. In fact, the Harris’s sparrow actually breeds nowhere else on Earth (although it migrates south through the U.S. in winter).
Lincoln's sparrow (Photo by Mhairi McFarlane/NCC staff)
Another migratory sparrow I gained a new appreciation for very recently is Lincoln’s sparrow. Superficially similar to the more common song sparrow, this species migrates through my home area in southern Ontario each spring and fall. It is always a treat to find one among the larger flocks of song sparrows and white-throated sparrows. While volunteering for the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, I have become familiar with its lovely song, echoing through wild, boreal landscapes in and around Wabakimi Provincial Park in 2021 (you can watch a presentation about those adventures here), and along the Muketei and Attawapiskat Rivers in 2022 (see presentation here).
Rufous-collared sparrow in Costa Rica (Photo by Mhairi McFarlane/NCC staff)
I knew this unassuming, but attractive “little brown,” “just a sparrow” bird was migratory, but I hadn’t taken the time to pay attention to how far away it migrated in the winter. On a recent trip to Costa Rica to volunteer for the Macaw Recovery Network (macaws being brightly coloured, raucous birds, are arguably the opposite of sparrows in every way), I was enjoying reacquainting myself with the lovely rufous-collared sparrows native to the area, when my eye was caught by one that looked different. It was a Lincoln’s sparrow! I added it to my ebird checklist, and it was flagged as being unusual. I was able to grab a few photos, confirming the identification.
I looked up ebird records of this species, and realized a single Lincoln’s sparrow had been documented in this same spot several times in early 2023, but also at a similar time in 2022. This gave rise to the intriguing question as to whether the very same bird migrated all the way to the North American boreal and came to winter in the same spot in Costa Rica two winters in a row! It turns out too this is one of the most southerly observations of this species globally, with just a handful of observations just slightly further south, across the border in Panama.
As it disappeared into a dense tropical shrub, I wondered if I would be lucky enough to connect with this little bird near my home later this spring, and perhaps even again during my bird atlassing trip in northern Ontario in the summer.