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Always in Season: The fall sparrow season arrives in the valley

A fox sparrow showed up in Grand Forks on the first day of fall. Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, shared this happy news. Among birders, the fall migration of sparrows is as eagerly anticipated as duck season is among hunters.

The season is underway. Lambeth opened it with an email message reporting his fox sparrow sighting. "The next three weeks are prime time for migrant sparrows," he wrote.

Fox sparrows got to our place west of Gilby, N.D., later, showing up in the middle of last week.

The fox sparrow is not the most abundant of northern migrants, but it is a conspicuous bird, and its relative scarcity probably makes it more appealing to serious birders.

This species is the largest of the sparrow species and its plumage is distinctive. As the name suggests, the fox sparrow is a rusty-colored bird, especially on the tail and the lower back. The upper parts toward the front of the bird tend to be gray in color, but the rust appears on the cheeks and in large stripes or blotches on the breast. There is a spot on the center of the vest; bird guides sometimes call this "confused" or even "messy."

One other species of sparrow answers this general description, the song sparrow. This is a nesting species here. Like the fox sparrow, it has a conspicuous spot at the center of an otherwise streaked breast. The song sparrow is browner rather than rusty, though, and it is smaller than the fox sparrow.

The song's sparrow's behavior differs from the fox sparrow, too. Song sparrows often perch well above the ground. Fox sparrows are ground lovers, especially when foraging. Often they scratch around in the leaves. They can be spotted under feeders.

Other fall sparrows share this feeding preference. As Lambeth writes, "They prefer to feed on the ground so scattering seeds there is fine." I've followed that advice, attracting a variety of birds, not just sparrows, to my driveway.

The group known as "New World sparrows" includes about two dozen species that occur here. Roughly half are nesting species while the other half are migrants. Some confusion arises because not all of these birds are called "sparrows," but they share the characteristic small size and the distinct conical bills that aid in seat eating.

Among the migrants are several other conspicuous and easily identified species. These are white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, both described in their common names, and Harris sparrow.

The Harris sparrow is another large sparrow distinguished by its dark hood that extends over the head and well onto the breast. This is often incomplete on young-of-the-year and on some migrants. The large size and the presence of black on the face and head still serve to identify this species.

All of these species are on the burly side, with round bellies and longish tails.

The American tree sparrow is a smaller, more streamlined sparrow. This is one of the clear-breasted sparrows, except that it has a central breast spot, a neat one that is often described as a stick pin or a button. This field mark separates the tree sparrow from its close relative, the chipping sparrow. The birds share the streamlined shape and a reddish cap on the head, but the chipping sparrow lacks the breast spot. Unlike the tree sparrow, the chipping sparrow is a nesting species here.

Other migrating sparrows are less likely to be encountered, not because they are rarer, necessarily, but because they are more secretive, or at least not as likely to be where people tend to be. Among these are swamp sparrow and Lincoln's sparrow.

Among the New World sparrows, the most abundant migrant here — and across most of the continent — is the dark-eyed junco, the so-called "snowbird." This is a two-toned bird, gray on the top and white on the underside, with a sharp contrast between the zones across the breast. The junco shows white outer tail feathers when it flies.

Still other sparrow species migrate later in the year. Among these are Lapland longspurs and snow buntings — but they are not yet quite in season.

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