It was a wonderful week in the bird world, with late migrants passing through and nesting species arriving to begin the work of summer.
But it was plainer species that attracted my attention.
One morning, I was startled when a mourning dove shot out of an evergreen tree. Sure enough, I found a nest on a bough of the tree.
Mourning doves share nest-building duties. The male brings small sticks, and the female arranges them to suit herself. There’s not much arranging to do, actually. A mourning dove nest is fragile, a few twigs arranged on a flat bough, sometimes lined with evergreen needles or a feather or two.
Flimsy is another adjective that comes to mind.
The nest is well hidden, though, and if the birds were less flighty, their nests would be nearly impossible to find. That’s not the case, though. Get within 10 feet or so and the birds bolt.
Even though I know the nest is there, I am startled every time I pass the tree, which is fairly often, since it is on a direct line from the back door of the house to the front door of the steel shed that serves as garden headquarters.
Male and female mourning doves look alike. Plumage is a warm brown color marked with black. Tails are long. Wings clatter when the bird flies.
Both male and female mourning doves incubate the eggs, almost always two.
I don’t know if the bird that startles me is the male or the female. Probably the male, though, since the experts say males do most of the incubating from midmorning until midafternoon. Females take the overnight duty.
Another plain bird startled me, as well. I was on my knees in the garden, planting carrots, when I noticed a vesper sparrow. This was fortuitous. Vesper sparrows are common, but they are tough to recognize. Simply put, they are the plainest of resident sparrows. Seen close up, they show chestnut-colored patches in the wings, and this bird lingered long enough to allow a good look.
Then it flew.
And when it flew, it showed off its only other field mark — white feathers edging the tail.
This is the part of a vesper sparrow you usually see, and it’s a pretty reliable mark. I’ve counted many vesper sparrows on this mark alone. Most of them have been flying away while I’m walking along a rural road. They’re common enough there to earn a common nickname, “ditch sparrow.”
This is descriptive. The vesper sparrow is an edge species, seeking habitat on the border between open space and good cover. A roadside offers this. So does my garden, which is bare soil at this time of year, but the overgrown area we call “the rough” isn’t far away.
The vesper sparrow is large for a sparrow, approaching song sparrow size. That makes it much larger than the other common sparrows in my backyard, chipping sparrows and clay-colored sparrows. These two are close relatives easily separated by sound and appearance.
Chipping sparrows are clear-breasted and have a reddish mark on the top of the head. Clay-colored sparrows are clear-breasted, too. Their most obvious field mark is the rich, gray color at the nape of the neck. Really, a better name would be clay-collared sparrow.
But it’s the noise that gives these birds away. Chipping sparrows have a long, trilling call, not unpleasant but not musical either. The noise that clay-colored sparrows make is a near perfect imitation of an insect, a fairly high-pitched buzzing.
With the vesper sparrow, it is entirely different.
The vesper sparrow is a singer.
It starts with two to four clear notes, then a slurry of notes running down scale, followed by short, flutelike notes that rise and fall. Sometimes, the bird will introduce a chirp.
Vesper sparrows sing from open perches, and pinpointing the song will lead you to the bird.
Twilight is a good time to listen. Vesper sparrows earned their common name because they often sing at sunset.