Chipping Sparrows and Showering Sleet

This morning began with the soft hiss of sleet before dawn, and by the time the gray sky grew light, a thick white coat of sleet that looked like snow already covered the balcony outside our bedroom windows. The snug early quiet of the morning was broken by the grating shriek of a weather alert on my iPhone, warning of another winter storm.

With the temperature hovering in the low 30s, all morning a mix of sleet and light rain fell, but this was only the first wave of more to come, with the possibility of a seriously damaging ice storm before it ends. Schools, businesses and government offices have been closed in much of the state, and the forecasts all day have been dire.

Late in the afternoon there seemed to be a bit of a break in the weather, so I bundled up and went out for a short walk and fresh air. It felt great. It was cold, but with very little wind. A light, misty sleet fell the whole time I was out, but never enough to feel wet, and though I watched for icy patches, the roads and other surfaces all seemed fine so far. I could still hear a few trucks and cars on the highway, but traffic was lighter than usual. The trees stood silent and still against a low, murky gray sky, and the feel of the misty sleet on my face was clean and crisp.

The few birds I passed included an Eastern Phoebe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, a few Eastern Bluebirds, several Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens, and small flocks of American Robins scattered all around. Several White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows foraged in the sleet-frosted brown grass along the side of the road, one Eastern Towhee called chur-wink, and a Brown Thrasher sat quietly in the top part of a shrub in the old field. I could hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles scattered around, but saw no flock or gathering.

In our own front yard, especially around the feeders, Chipping Sparrows outnumbered all the other birds – even the Chickadees and Titmice. Four or five Chipping Sparrows at a time crowded onto one of the feeders, jostling for space – though every now and then a Cardinal or Downy Woodpecker or even a tiny, pugnacious Brown-headed Nuthatch would chase them away. But they’d come back.

All this winter we’ve had many more Chipping Sparrows visiting the feeders than in past years. We always have a good many, especially during the winter months, but they more often feed somewhere on the ground, usually in the grass, with two or three coming to a feeder now and then. Most days recently, there have been several at once crowding onto the feeder, and more underneath. I don’t know if it’s the particular mix of birdseed or some other factor – but I don’t really mind because they don’t seem to keep other birds away for long, as far as I can tell.

Also, as common as they are, I never seem to get tired of Chipping Sparrows. I find them appealing and endlessly entertaining to watch. Though several dozen Chipping Sparrows can almost disappear into a grass-covered yard, so small and unobtrusive as they hunt for food, just anonymous “little brown birds” – a closer look at an individual sparrow reveals a beautiful bird with bright, red-brown cap, crisp dark streak through the eye, a smooth gray breast, and streaked brown back and wings.

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