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Harris sparrow

Snowbirds at Mequon Nature Preserve

April 20, 2020  |  Topics: Places

By Jamie Schiesel

A migration took place at Mequon Nature Preserve (MNP) in January. Dozens of individuals sporting colorful coats congregated together right outside the PieperPower Education Center. Although many bird species do call MNP their winter home, this description isn’t about them. This is about the birders.

It was January 15th when an MNP staff member first snapped a picture of a Harris sparrow attending one of the feeders that adorn the Education Center. As always with a new species arrival, its presence was reported on, an online bird database enjoyed by scientists and hobby birders alike. What happened next, however, was quite unexpected. Over a span of two weeks, just short of 100 birders flocked to see this curious little bird. MNP regularly accommodates birders looking for a good hike full of avian attractions, so it’s not uncommon to see a passerby armed with a pair of binoculars. But this was something different. It was a spectacle for staff to see dozens of people per hour patrolling the bird feeders outside their windows.

Harris sparrow

What was so special about this bird that it brought so many onlookers in at record time? The Harris sparrow, Zonotrichia querula, a modest migrant from our neighbors to the north, passes through Wisconsin in isolated occurrences. It often mixes in with other more common throngs of similar-looking birds such as tree and house sparrows. They are endemic to breeding in Canada, meaning you won’t see them nesting here or anywhere else but the Great White North. This bird got its name from legendary ornithologist John James Audubon, who titled it after his naturalist friend Edward Harris in 1843.

Harris sparrow

Despite the apparent hype, one may ask how such a small bird (fitting in one’s hand) that lacks the striking colors furbishing other species, such as cardinals or blue Jays, could garner so much attention. This phenomenon perfectly exemplifies the passion of birders. All that had been done initially was a simple public data entry, no big announcements or banners. Yet in the two days that followed, easily 30 birders had arrived on scene, wrapped in warm layers, wielding binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras with lenses as long as one’s arm. To birders, every species big or small are important and fascinating. It is a motto that should serve as a model for the public with respect to all things in our ecosystem.

Harris sparrow

MNP is proud to contribute to Mequon’s title of Bird City and wishes only to see more public interest in birds. To connect more people with avian species, MNP holds free events for both seasoned birders and individuals brand new to the field to enjoy. Under normal scheduling, MNP staff lead many birding hikes that are free to the public during April and May. In the current circumstances all events are on hold, but keep up to date on all future MNP birding events by following us on Facebook!

For more information go to the Mequon Nature Preserve website.

Jamie Schiesel is an Educator at the Mequon Nature Preserve. Images of Harris sparrows courtesy MNP. The Mequon Nature Preserve is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature.