“The fall of a sparrow”*

When I was growing up in southern England, there were sparrows everywhere, and we took them for granted. Children fed them breadcrumbs as they hung around the tables in outdoor cafes. They looked like these Cotswold ones, and when I grew up I eventually learnt their proper name was the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus:

The UK has a second species, the Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, but until quite recently I never knew that worldwide there were many many species of sparrows. In fact around here in Maine there are twelve fairly common ones, and four more that are seen occasionally. To me they were just what birders call LBJ’s, or Little Brown Jobs. Who cares? Well, we all should. Because in England they have declined precipitously since my childhood, with house sparrows down 71% and tree sparrows down a horrifying 93% from 1970 to 2008, and that’s what can happen if no-one pays attention.

To encourage those of you reading this in the US to look more closely, here are the seven species I have photographed here in Maine. The larger number of species here relates partly to the greater land area, and partly to how birds are classified as, for example, sparrows vs finches. You will see from their Latin names that they are unrelated to the Old World sparrows, and indeed they are not all related to each other! Don’t worry if you find it hard to tell them apart, so do I, and if I’ve got any of them wrong, do let me know.

I’ll start with the American Tree sparrow, Spizelloides arborea, which stays here most of the year, even February:

The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, is here from early spring to late fall, and it breeds here. It is quite a large sparrow with a black spot in the middle of its breast:

A more familiar pose in this shot:

And it has a healthy appetite, even tackling sizable dragonflies (unfortunately, since they keep down the mosquito population):

I particularly like the Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina, with its orangey-brown head. It is a summer resident.

The White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, just migrates through. The first shot is an adult, heading north in the spring, and the second shot is a juvenile on its way south in the fall.

The Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, isn’t seen so often because it lives, surprise surprise, in swamps, but here is a rather scruffy one:

My second-to-last is probably my favorite, the White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, with its white throat (obviously) and bright yellow by its eyes (Birders have a name for this patch of feathers, the “lores”). It breeds here in Maine, and some even winter over.

My seventh (and last) is sort of cheating: it turns out that the European House Sparrow emigrated to the US 150 years before me, in the mid-1800s, when one Nicholas Pike released 16 sparrows in Brooklyn, and here it is in Maine:

I hope you never look at sparrows as just LBJ’s again.

PS The species I still haven’t seen are the Field, Fox, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and Vesper sparrows.

PPS You might want to read this short Smithsonian piece about our relationship with sparrows. Among other things, it tells the terrible saga of Mao Zedong’s edict that all sparrows should be destroyed, and the consequences. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-story-of-the-most-common-bird-in-the-world-113046500/

*My title comes from Hamlet “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Shakespeare uses this to suggest that we must resign ourselves to death as being all part of God’s plan, but as far as the sparrows go, I say let’s fight for their survival. This means preserving their habitat and protecting their migration paths.

Even snakes can fall in love

I was with fellow docents for the Greater Lovell Land Trust, plus four remarkable children, looking for dragonflies hatching. Two people had seen two water snakes earlier in the week, and to our delight, one emerged from the pond:


This is a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, not poisonous, but quite bad-tempered, and a distinct deterrent to what is now (in the UK) called “wild swimming”. This was about 2 feet long, but they can grow to 5 feet. It meandered around, and disappeared. But not long after, it reappeared alongside a much larger one, and they headed for the hills:

The bigger one is the female. They didn’t go far, and curled up in a very cosy embrace:

We watched as they bundled up together, impossible to disentangle one from tother:

The two snakes encircled each other, looking unnervingly like a solitary two-headed snake:

At intervals the smaller male endearingly rested his smaller head on the female’s larger one:

All of this is part of the foreplay, really; the male rests his cheek on the female and rubs her gently. Eventually, he aligns his body with hers, and tries to get the crucial parts into alignment.

From time to time they convulsed, briefly, and this video makes it pretty clear what was afoot; we were nothing but voyeurs:

Then they moved off, now twisted into a braided skein:

As they moved, the smaller male lay almost motionless balanced on the back of the powerful female:

How do the mechanics work? Snakes have openings under their bodies near (but not at) the tail, called cloaca. The mechanics of mating involve lining these up so that the make can insert one of his two hemipenes to deposit his sperm, and then seal it in with a copulatory plug (which also keeps any other males out).

Since the action all happens underneath, closeups are heard to get. Here I think they are just disconnecting; the female’s tail is on top, and the male’s body is belly-up.

I’ll end with one more video:

We left them alone. In 3-5 months she will give birth to as many as 36 live babies, each about a foot long..

PS For 2000 years, intertwined snakes have been a symbol of faithful love. This bracelet is from the 1st century AD, from Roman Egypt:

Prince Albert gave Victoria a snake engagement ring , here is the inscription on the inside:

Some of this jewelry does not appeal to my 21st century taste, but this 19th century enamel and diamond bracelet is on my wish list, though occasions to wear it would be rare:

The first blush of spring

We associate red leaves with the fall, but every photograph in this post was taken this spring. These plants don’t stay red, they turn green, but why do they start off this way?

No-one knows, but a recent suggestion is that the “juvenile reddening”makes the tender young leaves less discernible to some insects that might devour them, and the associated chemicals make them unpalatable.* Below is a hawthorn:

And a beech:

All sorts of plants start like this. Here is a Wild Sarsaparilla:

And here is a fern:

The phenomenon is found not only in many trees, like this maple:

but also in many tiny plants, like this miniscule fern:

And then the red leaves turn green, and the flowers appear. Hard to believe this Striped Maple is the same plant as the one in the very first photo:

*A little more science. The chemical that makes the leaves red (in fall or spring) is called Anthocyanin, and the tree uses energy to produce it, so it must serve some beneficial purpose. It seems to be more common in young trees than in mature ones, and in poor soils. It may protect somewhat against drought, and late frosts. One theory was that it acted as a sunscreen, but recent work has debunked that idea, leaving the insect-deterrent effect as the leading contender for now.

“Compared with red phenotypes, green phenotypes suffered greater herbivore damage, as judged by the number of leaves attacked and the area lost to herbivory. .. The decreased reflectance in the green spectral band and the concomitant leveling of reflectance throughout the 400-570 nm spectral range may either make red leaves less discernible to some insect herbivores or make insect herbivores more discernible to predators, or both. Moreover, excessive herbivory may be additionally discouraged by the high phenolic concentrations in red leaves.”

Karageorgou and Manetas 2006

Synchronised swimming, merganser style

I watched a pair of Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus, the other day, grooming as they swam, and I could swear they were matching their moves to their mate. Look at this.

First, the happy couple:

They began with under the wing

Then behind the ear

Now the armpit (do ducks have armpits?):

A slight failure of coordination here (five point deduction):

The male did the occasional show-off solo, watched admiringly by his consort:

And then they each lay on their sides in the water and tended to their bellies:

(This last manoeuvre was simultaneous, but they had drifted a little apart so I couldn’t get them in the same shot.)

And they looked deep into each other’s eyes.

I have tried to discover if this was chance, or whether coordinated grooming is part of their pair bonding ritual, but to no avail.

But I like to think of it as akin to standing in the bathroom with your loved one, blowdrying your hair together, and reaffirming your vows. Though no matter how hard you try, a stiff breeze can play havoc with that hairdo.

Snapping a Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, are ugly brutes, and not to be messed with. I’ve never had good enough photos before to do a post about them, but now I have. One was crossing the road near my house this morning, and two nice people had stopped to help it cross, and prevent any cars from running it over. When it made it into the woods, I got my camera.

It was raining, so the shell looks shiny black, but when it is dry it is a dark brown, and this one was about 14 inches long. It has a long tail (above), and thick strong legs with huge claws (below):

and its body sort of oozes out from under the shell:

Unlike other turtles they can’t fully retract their heads and legs into their shell, so they display what Wikipedia calls “a combative disposition” when they feel threatened. They have been known to bite through a broomstick.

When the head is fully out, it is quite long, with a charmingly retroussé nose:

You can see if you look carefully that its upper lip has a sharp central beak , and it has little round nostrils:

They have remarkable eyes, with a sort of tortoiseshell iris, which seems appropriate.

They live in ponds, lakes and streams, and they can give a very nasty bite, so little children are warned not to dangle their toes in the water, just in case. They eat pretty much anything, about 1/3 plants and the rest fish, frogs, carrion, insects, crayfish, ducklings, you name it, including possibly children’s toes.

Like all turtles they sunbathe, to bring their body temperature up high enough for their metabolism to work properly. But they mainly sunbathe on the water’s surface, and quickly dive back down deep if they hear someone coming, so this is a rare look at one out of the water, not a great photo, but you can see the huge claws

Females do not breed for 15-20 years. They come up on land and find a nice sandy place to dig a suitable hole and lay 20-40 eggs, starting in April through to June, which may have been why this one was in the woods. I took this photo down in Massachusetts a few years ago; she has buried her eggs and is heading off, never to see her offspring again:

80% will be eaten by predators, such as raccoons and foxes, but for the lucky few, in the fall, after three to six months, the babies hatch:

Hard to believe that if this tiny creature lives for 100 years it can grow to 60 pounds (though most are between 10 and 35 pounds).