The Sweet Elegant Song of the White-crowned Sparrow

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

A male white-crowned sparrow sings from the top of a cedar in Washington Park by Anacortes. (Thomas Bancroft)

We had been birding all morning as we climbed onto viewpoint above Burroughs Channel. It was almost noon and we had a good morning searching for seabirds and shorebirds, pretty much ignoring the little tweets.  The sweet whistle followed quickly by several more whistles and buzzes, therefore, caught me off guard.  I stopped to listen again.

We had pulled into Washington Park at Anacortes to search for buffleheads and surf scoters on Rosario Strait. We found several feeding out from the boat landing. They repeatedly dove staying down for 20 to 30 seconds while they searched for tasty morsels. My birding partner spotted a white flash way off shore and we discovered a pigeon guillemot stretching on the gentle swells. With each stretch of its wings, its white patches flashed in the noon sun and the white contrasted with the black body plumage. A common loon in its new nuptial plumage cruised by as we climbed back into the car to head to Green Point. At the point, five red-necked grebes bobbed in the waves; they had shifted from their drab winter plumage to their nuptial plumage with the distinctive rufous neck that gives them their name. We, also, heard the loud cries of a black oystercatcher pair and ran to the edge but to no avail.

So what was this sweet whistle I just heard above Burroughs Channel?

As we strolled down the slope toward the source of the whistle, I realized that we could hear a line of these songs echoing in both directions through the scattered cedars and pines. These songs declared that each vocalist owns their individual patch of habitat. Finally, one called in a cedar not far from where we stood. I crept around the edge of the tree to find a white-crowned sparrow on the top singing its sweet melody. We stood for quite a while listening to him bellowing out his song as strongly as any opera singer.  In 1772, J. R. Foster got it right when he called this one of the most “elegant little species.” This little bird is one of the most intensely studied species in the world. It breeds across western United States and north into Canada and across the Arctic. Just like people, these little guys have distinctive dialects depending on where in their range they breed. A number of years ago when I heard one singing in Denali National Park, I remember that I didn’t recognize it. It looks like I still can’t seem to keep all their dialects straight. We found a nice bench just above the cedar and sat to eat our lunch and listen to his solo version of “I will always love you.”

Here it is if you would like to hear it too.


Dorothy Lake on an April Morning

 (Thomas Bancroft)

Dorothy Lake in Alpine Lakes Wilderness sits in a glacier carved valley. (Thomas Bancroft)

We climbed the trail toward Dorothy Lake in Alpine Lakes Wilderness hoping to see what it might look like on this spring morning. Every quarter mile or so, we heard a Pacific Wren singing his complex melody to declare that spring is here and he is ready for a mate. We stopped at Camp Robber Creek for 20 minutes to watch and listen to the water tumble down the granite chute from the valley above. The bridge across the creek is right where Camp Robber Creek joins the East Fork of the Miller River coming down from Lake Dorothy. Smith Creek joins these two from a ravine a dozen yards below this junction. The chorus formed by these three watercourses was so loud that we had to shout to each other to be heard over the symphony engulfing us.

The water tumbled down through a series of crevices in the water smoothed rocks.  The water divided between water courses and came back together as it tumbled down the cascade. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The water tumbled down through a series of crevices in the water smoothed rocks. The water divided between water courses and came back together as it tumbled down the cascade. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Soon after leaving the bridge, we discovered snow on the trail. I had not expected snow today when I suggested this trip. The storm that moved through Seattle during this last week must have brought snow to these mountains. Looking through the forest on both sides of the trail, we noticed that the snow on the ridges looked fresh, maybe from last night. Snow clung to the branches of the subalpine firs to make a winter wonderland scene in mid-spring.

Fortunately, the snow and ice on the trail had begun to melt and we had a small amount of traction as we climbed the steps up the trail. Volunteers with Washington Trails Association have improved this trail by using logs to stop erosion, construct steps up steep sections, and build boardwalks across wet places. We hiked delicately so as not to slip and fall on the snow and ice.

We took the side trail out to the outflow from Dorothy Lake. The U-shaped valley is a result of glaciers gouging out this valley and carving the deeper scoop that now forms Dorothy Lake. I suspect the granite rocks here at the outflow were too hard for the Pleistocene glaciers to carve. The snow covering the trees and valley walls gave a picturesque view across the lake, and we found a rock to sit for a while.

A mass of drift logs crowded the shore near the outflow. Water trickled through the logs and down the creek beside our seats. Two small rapids over rocks gave a pleasant sound to the scene. I noticed fresh buds preparing to open on the huckleberries. Once it warms, the new leaves will unfurl. The lake near us was flat and mirror-like, reflecting the mountains and clouds. The creek gurgled behind us and I felt the cold air rising from the melting snow, chilling my back. We rose to hike along the lake a short ways, flushing a few juncos from the bushes and hearing the chatter of chickadees in the cedars and hemlocks above us. Although I could not feel the breeze, the lake surface had become scalloped in a mosaic pattern. We found a rock to eat our lunch and watched the mosaic of scallops twist and turn in the afternoon light before we rose to head back.

Spring will reach this subalpine lake any day now.


 (Thomas Bancroft)

(Thomas Bancroft)




A Pacific Wren sings “it is spring” in Washington.

I rounded a corner on the trail and heard a Pacific wren begin its high energy song. Seattle has had some wonderful warm days in early April, and I guess this little bird has decided that spring has arrived. Dr Kroodsma, a world expert on bird songs, characterized these little guys as having the “pinnacle of song complexity.” They have a large repertoire of notes that they can arrange in different sequences. Their song ends up being more complex than their close relatives the winter wren of eastern United States or the Eurasian wren. I edged along the trail looking for the bird. I was hiking in St Edwards Park along the shore of Lake Washington. It should be sitting on a branch a few feet to a dozen or more off the forest floor. The call came from the far side of a clump of hemlocks. The wren is only 4 inches long, and dark mottled brown so it blends into the dappled forest light extremely well. I could not find it. The singing male is probably cocking his tail high behind his back and twisting back and forth as it repeatedly sings. A male’s song helps him defend his territory from other males and helps him try to entice a female to join him for the season. Listen to this little guy sing his heart out.

Does hearing it bring hopes of spring to you? Do bird songs bring high spirits to you?