Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lark Sparrow

While looking through my field guides, I always found the Lark Sparrow to be one of the most beautiful and intriguing of the emberizids. Along with the White-Throated, I certainly considered it to be one of the most beautiful Sparrows I might actually see someday. When I happened upon this solitary Lark Sparrow, my first and only to date, it was a rather bizarre circumstance, but good grief that incredible facial mask did not disappoint!

It was around 4:15pm and I was waiting outside for Maria to pick me up from work. As I was exiting the school, I noticed one of my 4th grade students sitting rather sadly in the corner of the playground, which is in actuality a large, fenced in field. She was in the aftercare program, and had gotten into some sort of argument with her other after-school friend. Needless to say, her world was ending. The tears began to flow as she told her tail of woe, a story of good intentions and misunderstandings. While I slowly began talking her out of her funk, I noticed a small brown bird foraging in the bermuda grass outside the retaining fence.

I didn't think much of it at the time, and assumed it to be a House Sparrow. I've seen Harris' Hawks and one juvenile Oriole around the school grounds, but nothing much in way of unusual or special birds. As the bird turned towards me, the unmistakable white stripes and rich, chestnut brown were immediately apparent. It caught me totally by surprise, and my reaction would have been much more climactic had I not been in front of one of my students. Both out of a desire to share this amazing sighting, and to change the subject a bit, I began talking about the bird with my student, who seemed pretty interested. I pointed out how beautiful it was and that I had never seen one before. Going out on a limb, I even mentioned that this is not their usual range (is it slightly too far north for this time of year?), so that made it a very lucky sighting (which of course it was for me regardless). She liked birds too, but confessed that when she grew up she was in fact going to be a herpetologist. 

The Lark Sparrow seemed pretty content in his little patch of grass, despite it's close proximity both to the parking lot entrance and we gawking spectators. I called Maria, who was pulling into the driveway at that very moment, and she parked nearby, happy and eager to meet me with the camera that I had mercifully left in the car for just these sorts of occasions. My first shot of the bird is above, with the white wrought-iron fence unavoidably involved. Luckily, the Lark Sparrow was tolerant enough to let me exit the playground and get around him so the sun was actually on my side.

With baited breath I snapped away, worried this beautiful bird would realize any second that there was a big goon staring at him, and fly away. The lighting was pretty dim, but I knew if I got enough pictures there'd be some keepers. He hopped around with perfect calm before some of my colleagues pulled up, curious to see Mr. Butler laying in the grass with a camera and hiding behind a fire hydrant (these are the moments we just have to endure as birders). I explained the situation to them with as much brevity and emphasis as possible, and in fairness they seemed genuinely excited and happy for me. Alas, Mr. Lark Sparrow had enough publicity, and he flew across the street.

He landed in an orange tree, which would've made for some great pictures had I been able to get closer. I figured I was already pushing my bird luck without trying my hand at criminal trespassing, so I left the bird and the yard in peace. It was a totally surprising and wonderful way to end an otherwise dreary day at work, and in fact it would've been a great way to accent any day! If I didn't have this mild addiction, all of the pick-me-ups and all of the FUN that birding provides would be lost on me. I would've walked right by this stunning sparrow and been none the better for it. I'm so glad that was not the case.