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Northland Nature...Early October is definitely sparrow time

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Early October is an amazing time in the Northland. Most of us are struck by the scene of leaf color noted every day. For the passerby, it is hard to not see this arboreal magic.

Reds of red maple, red Oak, dogwood, sumac, cherry and Virginia creeper (a vine that frequently covers fences, roadsides and walls, but it takes the bright red colors at this time for us to see how common it is) mix with yellows of birch, basswood, sugar maple, elm, ash and aspen to give us photogenic opportunities in most woods.

This is quite an encore given by the trees that stood with green colors for the last five months. Soon this show will be over and with the winds and rains of October, the leaves come down. Some trees, including the tamaracks of the swamps, will still be giving a dazzling display later in the month.

With all this color for early October, I find another equally inviting sight here too, albeit much more drab -- the movement of sparrows.

To many people, sparrows are little brown birds that all look alike, hard to tell apart. And to some, the word "sparrow" is associated with the non-native house or English sparrows that were brought to this country in the 1850s and now reside in cities all over the United States.

The Northland does have a very rich diversity of native sparrows and in early October an observant searcher could find five to 10 kinds on any given day. With the exception of the gray junco, all indeed are little brown birds.

But a closer look reveals they don't all look alike. Maybe the easiest to see now is the white-throated sparrows. They live up this name by having a white throat patch, but also carry white stripes on top of the head; often some have it adorned with yellow.

Not only is the white on the head easy to see, but their flocks readily come to our yards and feeders. Each day lately, I have been watching a group feeding in the lawn as they pass by on their south-bound trek.

Among them sometimes are others. Juncos frequently are here too and in the flock may be another with white on the head, the white-crowned sparrow, with no white throat patch.

Others sparrows that still might be in the region are the chipping sparrows, the same ones that may have nested in the yard. These sparrows have a reddish-brown crown on their heads with no white and no spots on the belly.

A visitor from the far north looking much like the chipping sparrow is the tree sparrow. This northerner has a similar crown, but carries a black chest spot.

While many migrant sparrows will flock, not all do. In the wetlands is the well-named swamp sparrow, also without streaks on the underside.

And in the woods' edge, I'll often see a Lincoln Sparrow, a bird that does have streaks on the sides. This sparrow, usually a loner, can be hard to tell from the Savannah sparrow of the fields or the song sparrows often among the shrubs of the yard. These latter two sparrows are spotted on the undersides.

Regularly in October, we get visits from flocks of sparrows that look like large song sparrows, but with a plumage of a reddish-brown: the fox sparrows. They usually stay in the woods (though I have had some come to the ground beneath the bird feeder in the yard), where they scratch and dig through the leaves for soil meals.

These fox sparrows are always a delight to see; often it is the scratching among the leaves of the forest floor that gives away their presence. Fox sparrow flocks tend to stay only a week or two before moving on further south.

Several of these sparrows -- the chipping, song, Savannah, swamp and white-throated -- have nested in the north country and for the last few weeks they have been preparing to leave for a trip to warmer sites.

Others, like the fox, white-crowned, Lincoln, tree sparrows and junco, breed further to the north and we see them as they pause on their migration route.

Occasionally, a few such as the white-throated, tree sparrows and junco may winter with us, but most do not.

A couple of sparrow relatives, the Lapland longspurs and snow buntings, will soon show up here too. They are ground birds and are more likely to be seen along roadsides and fields than feeders and yards. Traveling in flocks, some of which winter here, they are quite easy to see.

The warbler migration of September is nearly all passed, but sparrows take their place. There is plenty of bird life to see among the colorful leaves of the forests in early October.

With some patience, a pair of binoculars and maybe a reference bird book, we can get to know the sparrows that add more to these delightful days of autumn in the Northland.

Retired teacher Larry Weber of Carlton is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods" and "Webwood." You may contact him at