Changing of the Birds

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

November 3, 2011

I believe I first learned about the vertical migrations of Juncos from the late Edwin Way Teale’s books. While most birds move north and south with the seasons, some, like the Junco, may also move up and down in altitude.



I have seen Juncos on nests on a foggy mountain top in Maine, south of Katahdin, when there were none to be found in the wild country down below, nearer to sea level. I remember the liquid trilling of the males, like a distant old-fashioned telephone ringing in the tops of the stunted trees.

Like Juncos, Chipping Sparrows also trill, but it is a dry, and yes, “chipping” call. I hear them staking out their territories in my back yard every spring, usually beginning in April. They always seem to arrive immediately after the Juncos leave.

Then, come fall, the Chipping Sparrows leave and head south, and it always seems like the day after the Chipping Sparrows leave, the Juncos come back—like two families who don’t like each other but have to show up at the same event. I always imagine the Juncos sitting on the top of the ridge behind the house, tapping their feet, waiting for those darn sparrows to go south.

A little anthropomorphism goes a long way.

And yet, they do come back to the mountain tops first, before they drop down to glut themselves at the feeders in every backyard in the valley.

I have not seen a Chipping Sparrow since the snowstorm. I can’t blame them. They are birds of summer, and last weekend was none too summery.

Nor have I seen a Junco in my yard.

Today, after a long time away, caught up in other requirements, I managed to get back out to the Tuscarora State Forest. I wanted to see for myself how much damage the heavy “pruning snow” had done in the forest.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

The short answer is: a lot.

Despite the damage, the Tuscarora State Forest crew has done a  tremendous job of clearing and repairing the roads, and I was able to travel through pretty much all of the south block—the Perry County part.

I found Juncos. As I drove up and over Bower Mountain, and later as I drove up the backside of Rising Mountain, there were several small flocks feeding along the sides of the road almost at the tops of the ridges.

I stopped on Rising Mountain Road and watched one flock for a while.

Such a commonplace little gray-and-white bird, but there is something confiding about a Junco; they are pleasant folk. They chip back and forth to each other continually; they take sudden alarms, but they usually don’t fly far.

Then, something I wasn’t expecting. One Junco flew up to the top of a weed and let loose with a short, liquid trill—something like an old-fashioned telephone heard at a distance.

I have heard that call before, in the fog, on the top of a mountain in Maine—south of Katahdin.

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