I was standing in the middle of the side yard, appraising the cheery yellow blooms of invasive lesser celandine. Their ever-expanding ranks now carpet most of the hillside below the road. A pretty, creeping plague which I fear threatens to choke out the bloodroot and Dutchmen’s breeches I’ve planted along the slope.
My worried pondering was broken when the soft morning suddenly filled with nearby birdsong — a simple, euphonious melody, as much rhythm as tune. Glorious, poignant, mellifluous, plaintive.
It was all in there, an emotional masterpiece … just a few soft notes that tug at the heartstrings as they simultaneously fill your soul with hope and joy.
I closed my eyes and savored the performance.
The singer was a white-throated sparrow. A chunky little bird, rather large for a sparrow, handsomely marked in streaked skullcap, bright yellow daubs called “lores” in front of their eyes, and a white, namesake throat patch. Birds as lovely as their song — and one of my all-time favorites.
Which brings me to a shameful confession: For the first twenty-odd years of my life, I blithely overlooked the white-throated sparrow entirely. Never saw one, heard its song, or knew of the bird’s existence. And I remained unaware of my ignorance until I went fishing in Michigan.
It was mid-April, the early 1970s. I was standing knee-deep in a riffle on the storied Au Sable River. Every direction I looked there were fish rising—wild, hungry trout, splashing, feeding rambunctiously, nosily slurping spent mayflies.
Incredible! I’d never caught a trout in my life, and was so excited by the surrounding spectacle I thought I might explode!
The long northern twilight was just beginning, and cool air, redolent with the sharp scent of cedar and jackpine, was settling over the water. I was trying to restrain myself from becoming frantic while figuring out which fish to logically try for first.
That’s when I heard the call — a series of soft, pensive notes. Not too far away. A song so achingly lovely it stopped my fishing thoughts in their tracks.
What bird was that?
I looked around, tried to locate the singer. But the low light and dark woods hid it from my view. The mystery bird sang several times more that evening, but I always failed to spot it.
On subsequent days and locations during that trip, I heard the same sweet, sad song again and again. And though I tried every time to glimpse the singer, I never succeeded.
The mystery bird remained a mystery. And I didn’t manage to identify it the following year, either. I made several trout junkets—heard the song and diligently scrutinized the nearby cover, but saw nothing. This scenario became so routine that no northcountry trip was complete until the mystery singer and I had gone through our sing-and-search game at least once.
Even worse, I heard the bird singing during a spring mushrooming trip along the Stillwater. What? My trout-country mystery bird also haunted Ohio’s smallmouth bass waters? Was this some sort of cosmic joke?
I finally figured the puzzle out while on yet another springtime trout expedition. I was camped amid the Upper Peninsula’s wilds, south of Lake Superior, beside the beguiling Fox River. Deep in Hemingway’s inspiring “two-hearted” country.
The bird began singing while I was cooking a breakfast of fresh-caught brook trout and morel mushroom, sautéd in butter, both only moments removed from their respective homes. Plus coffee strong enough to hold its own against the pine-fragrant air.
I grabbed my well-worn Golden Guide copy of Birds of North America. In addition to color plates, this volume also contains visual reproductions of a birdsong’s spectrograph called a Sonagram. A device I’d heretofore found confusing to the point of uselessness, though I’m musically inclined and ought to be able to make sense of such things.
Yet I hoped this time would be different, seeing as how the mystery bird’s song was so simple and straightforward. I began thumbing through the book, page by page, looking only at the Sonagrams.
Eureka! There it was! On page 320 I spotted a perfect-fit Sonagram … my mystery bird was a white-throated sparrow. Absolutely! No question.
And in the unbelievable way these things sometimes happen, my campground singer—as if realizing the jig was up—suddenly flew from a camouflaging balsam thicket to perch on a dead tamarack snag a dozen yards away.
Synchronous name identification and visual confirmation. Who says nature doesn’t have a sense of humor? And in case you’re wondering — this is still the only instance where those awkward Sonagrams proved useful.
Of course once I figured out what the mystery bird was, I began seeing and hearing white-throated sparrows everywhere. I encountered them while bass fishing my favorite creeks, ambling along familiar trails, even sitting in my own backyard!
White-throated sparrows, I soon figured out, weren’t predominately northcountry birds, but were common hereabouts — especially during the spring, fall, and winter months.
Come winter, I often have a dozen or more white-throats working the ground beneath my feeders for scattered cracked corn. And as I write this, there’s a white-throat sitting on a low hackberry limb maybe fifteen feet beyond my deskside window.
Weather doesn’t make much difference to these little birds when it comes to singing — rain, sleet, snow, cloudy or sunny, warm or bitterly cold. If I step outside any time from just before dawn until twilight’s last fading, chances are good I’ll hear the white-throat’s lovely song.
How could I have missed this little bird and it’s hauntingly beautiful song for so long? I don’t know. But I do know making its acquaintance has subsequently enriched my life and days afield immeasurably.
My heart delights at this feathered blessing and its sad-sweet song.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org