Waiting for the Golden-crowns

By Phila Rogers

Every year when I flip over the calendar from August to September, I pin up on the wall above my desk the list of dates when I first sighted the arriving Golden–crowned Sparrows.

No other species says “fall” in the same way. When I hear those sweet plaintive notes, I know all is right with the world.

This morning as I look up into the early September sky and see a scattering of clouds that might bring us the first shower of the season, I wonder if I should begin my daily vigil now.  Though the earliest arrival date over the last forty years is September 16, I’m eager to begin.

In the dark hours of early morning, I imagine these flocks of small wayfarers making their way south from where they nested in the far north. Where are they this night? Where along the coast will they stop to refresh themselves before taking up the journey again at sunset?

Around sunrise, I will walk slowly up the street listening, listening. The first sign is apt to be a general liveliness among the local birds with lots of vocalizing, as if these winter visitors from the tundra are reason enough for excitement.

Golden-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Bob Lewis, http://www.flickr.com/photos/boblewis/

Some years, I will discover several sparrows silently feeding in the Catalina cherry where the street opens out onto the steep hillsides of the University lands.  Other years, I will walk further out on the dirt path where I have a view down to the bays and oaks in the narrow canyon where the north fork of Strawberry Creek begins.

Sometimes, I will be stopped by a small single note of uncertain origin. Then an answer.  Maybe two notes this time in a minor key, which makes me shout “yes!”  Once I was so excited that I performed an ecstatic jig, hopefully unobserved.

Another year, I came back to my house empty-handed, only to find a young male Golden-crown feeding, unconcerned, at the seed tray.

Last year was truly worrisome.  After almost a month of the daily vigil, I finally heard my first Golden-crown.  The date was October 11!  I recall a few years back, when the Golden-crowns were late, the San Francisco Chronicle began publishing “Letters to the Editor” from other bird watchers asking:  “Where are they?”

What is it about these small brown birds that engages our imagination?  Maybe it’s because they are among the first of our winter visitors, and probably the last to leave in late April.  For me, it is their generosity with their song – their willingness to sing in any season.  They love to sing before a rain.

And it is the nature of the song itself – those three descending notes in the minor key (“Oh dear me”) — the perfect metaphor for the bittersweet nature of fall itself when the days grow short and the first storms of winter will refresh the earth with the welcome gift of rain.

Golden-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Bob Gunderson, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobgunderson/
September sky / Photo by Phila Rogers

Note: You can listen to an audio clip of the Golden-crowned Sparrow on AllAboutBirds.org, the web site of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology..