October 30, 2014
White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
In a column back in April (jimburnsphotos.com/pages/4-17-14.html) I riffed on finally coming to an understanding of why the return of swallows in the spring is an anticipated and cherished event for birders in the East and Midwest.  And sort of wished I had something similar to look forward to here in the always sunny Southwest.  And then on October 5 I realized I did.

The big, non-monsoon storm which struck Phoenix the last weekend in September and knocked a branch out of our olive tree also sucked the last of the monsoon humidity out of the Valley.  The night of October 4 was the first night we turned off the AC and threw open the doors and windows to sleep.  On October 5 I awoke before sunrise, puttered around for a few minutes checking my email, then put on my running clothes and stepped to the front door, wide open behind the locked security screen for the first time since last April.

And then I heard it.  I’m not a very good ear birder—no musical talent.  I typically recognize bird song around the neighborhood as something I’ve heard before and should know, but it takes me a while to identify what I’m hearing to species.  The five syllable song I heard just before sunrise on October 5, however, came to me instantly—the long, piercing introductory note, then three faster, higher, somewhat slurred notes rising up the scale to a prolonged note at the top, a brief pause, then the precipitous sharp drop to one last low, short note at the bottom.  White-crowned Sparrow!

I had to smile--something akin to welcoming back a neighbor who always leaves at the end of April to escape the Valley’s summer heat and always returns for our glorious Octobers.  And always checks in with you to let you know he’s back.  Actually it wasn’t akin to that at all.  It was that.  Not exotic, not colorful, common and well-known, White-crowneds have been labeled “elegant,” and are one of the most accessible and well-studied of all our passerines.

I walked in to the computer, curious to see if I had marked this return in October’s past like swallow trackers reveling in annual patterns, parsing what they might mean, and using the information to shine a light through the long gray tunnel of winter.  I had not.  In fact, White-crowned sightings had become so common in our birding life that recorded observations had slowed over the years and finally winked out with a 7/6/07 record in Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.

There were frequent entries early in the game, beginning in 1975, then only sporadic highlights like the one on 2/16/81 where I noted I had learned the song while hiking Rackensack Wash on the Tonto, and the one on 6/26/98 where I noted the gambelii subspecies in Churchill looked like it was wearing a stocking cap.  Here’s what I entered on October 5:  10/5/14—White-crowneds return!

I’m sure there will be a White-crowned entry once a year now.  Though a calendar reversal, White-crowneds are the Valley’s swallows marking the end of our “cruel season” and auguring well the coming of the desert Southwest’s famous winters.  I can’t wait to record their return date next October.