No. 10: Birds and Patch List Building

by Frank Izaguirre

Species: American Tree Sparrow, Spizelloides arborea

Question: What is your favorite personal patch list bird or the one you’d most like to add?

Sometimes we manifest, don’t we?

It was around this time last year—on the first really cold day of fall, when you feel it in yours bones for the first time since spring—that I started thinking about what winter birds I wanted to add to the patch list.

Finches were an obvious contender, and how hard could it be to get a flock of Pine Siskins anyway? And everyone’s got their own rare owl reverie: for me it’s, more realistically, a Northern Saw-whet, and, more hopefully, a whole clan of Long-eareds.

But the one I really found myself fixating on was American Tree Sparrow. Maybe it’s because I had done so well sparrow-wise in the spring, or maybe because I’d seen so many American Trees in various places—although not my patch, where there were no eBird records—the winter before, but as I ambled along my familiar routes, I kept fantasizing about the places where one would pop up, it’s bold breast spot clear and unmistakable.

Now, I was imagining that would be with snow on the ground, the temperature in the teens or colder. That’s how you build the list in winter, right? Get out there when it’s cold and see what’s been blown down from the north.

But it wasn’t like that at all. Just a couple weeks later, on October 30, 2020, on one of those nasty rainy fall days—good birding weather obviously—I got out to the patch and tested my will to not give up, go back inside, and drink hot chocolate.

There was a big sparrow flock, filled with lingering Chipping Sparrows, arriving Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows, and plenty of Song Sparrows to round things out. My binocs were wet and hard to use, but they weren’t so wet that they prevented me from recognizing the big sparrow in the middle of them all as an American Tree Sparrow. There was that big beautiful breast spot, with a nice bicolored bill.

I was so happy to see that bird. I had been thinking about getting it in bitter conditions come January or February—it was only October! The bird did that thing—you know what I mean—when it’s a really good bird and the weather is awful and they kind of glow a little despite the conditions. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Gorgeous! Despite the photo quality…

Despite the glow, the bird, of course, stayed in some brambles while moving around a bunch and playing hard-to-photograph, until it flew off a little deeper into the woods and became impossible-to-photograph. I thought I saw it once again briefly a few minutes later, but man my bins were wet and I really could go for a hot chocolate.

I texted a friend who also patrols the patch as I left, and she came a couple hours later and looked around, to no avail. I birded the same area several more days in a row: no American Tree Sparrow.

It wasn’t rare for the county or anything—they’re not particularly hard to find in other places nearby. But it was good for the patch, and I found myself feeling more and more gratified by that.

I remembered something Paul Hess had said to me once, about how he’d rather add a new bird to his patch list (which was essentially the same as the full patch list) than find a life bird. I thought that was crazy! Who would prefer a new patch bird that wasn’t a lifer over an actual lifer?

But I enjoyed that American Tree Sparrow in a way that was a little different, different even than other patch birds I’d added earlier in the year. And I felt closer to Paul’s words.

It’s been about a year since then, and time again to start fantasizing about the patch birds we may add this winter or late fall. The American Tree Sparrow is my favorite patch bird so far. What’s your favorite patch list bird or the one you’d most like to add?