The Brush Pile

When I came downstairs this morning to make tea, there were four little gray birds on the ground outside our kitchen windows. Two were in the garden poking around at something, a third little gray bird stood on the lawn soaking up the warm rays of the early morning sun, and a fourth one stood on the porch under the bird feeder, but flew up and hid in the hedge when a gray squirrel ran up onto the porch. These little birds, that are solid dark gray with clean white bellies, look as if they had stepped into a dish of white paint. When they fly away, they flash white outer tail feathers. They are dark-eyed juncos, also known as slate-colored juncos.

After breakfast, I decided to walk around the yard to see if any migrating birds had arrived overnight. The air was balmy, and the lake was perfectly still. All remaining patches of snow and ice in our yard had melted, but in the distance the ski slopes were still white with snow. It was the first nice day in a while, and it was easy to imagine that the birds were as happy as I was to be outdoors in warm sunshine. As I walked through the yard, birds moved away from me, but they did not go far. From somewhere out of sight a chickadee’s clear voice sang hey! swee-tee; hey! swee-tee. From the shore of the lake came the harsh rattle call of the belted kingfisher, as he flew low over the water and landed on a low rock. About a dozen juncos were busy picking at things on the lawn, or hunting in the leaf litter for food, and their pretty trills, which one of my friends tells me sound like tiny tambourines, filled the air. (Listen on Then, I heard a bird singing Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, and knew the white-throated sparrows had returned to our yard during the night.

There is an old brush pile at the edge of the yard, where various critters like to hide and explore, so I sat down on the top step of the cottage and turned my binoculars in that direction. Soon, two handsome male white-throated sparrows, easily distinguished by their white throat, white eyebrow stripes, and bright yellow spot in front of each eye, flew onto the brush pile. A couple of chipping sparrows joined them, and they were easy to recognize because of their unstreaked breast and little rust colored cap. A couple of song sparrows flew past, but they ignored the brush pile.

The sparrows in the brush pile were very active, flying back and forth from the woods, perching on top of the pile, and scooting inside it out of sight. Once a phoebe stopped there, and a chipmunk stuck his head out, but mostly there were white-throated sparrows and chipping sparrows, so I was intrigued when a sparrow I didn’t immediately recognize popped out of the brush pile and perched on a twig. The bird was a warm brown and gray, with fine streaks on the sides of the breast. It had a rusty crown, gray on the sides of the head, and a white throat. A heavy black streak extended down each side of the face and behind each eye. I quickly attempted to sketch the bird, a primitive sketch, which consisted of a couple of oval shapes to represent the head and the body, to which I added field marks and a few notes about color. It wasn’t much of a picture, but when I returned to the house and looked in the field guide it was enough to help me figure out that the bird on the brush pile was a swamp sparrow. I often hear or see swamp sparrows in wetlands, but had never had a chance to study one up close, and it was the first time I had seen one in our yard.

Every day, birds move around our yard, looking for food, watching for predators, defending territory from rivals, raising families, and doing all the important things birds do. Most of the time I, too, am busy rushing through the day, but today I did something important. I took time to sit quietly and watch a pile of brush filled with birds.

Jean Preis resides in Bridgton.

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