Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Day for LBJs

Birders have adopted a term "little brown jobs" (abbreviated "LBJs") as shorthand for any of the small brown bird species. "LBJ" refers principally to sparrows, but may include female finches, female buntings, pipits and larks, some warblers, some icterids, and even some thrushes, depending on one's perspective. The term expresses the mix of frustration and endearment that birders feel towards small brown birds. Perhaps the frustration of trying to differentiate cryptic birds is more prevalent. But even the most frustrated birder can find something to like among the small brown birds. These are, after all, among the most common birds that we encounter out in the field. Even in the city, it is hard not to see a few on any given walk. Today I saw more than my usual share of LBJs.

I started out at Constitution Gardens, and immediately I saw an adult bald eagle circling the Washington Monument. The lake at the gardens held basically the same group of waterbirds as the last time I visited: American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup, American coots, and superb redheads. A new waterbird species for this week was pied-billed grebe. The number of common grackles on the Mall has been building, and today I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the year. A few song sparrows and many robins worked the grassy areas around the lake.

From there I walked over to the DC WWI Memorial. As usual, the area around the memorial was quiet, but the azalea bushes held a trio of fox sparrows. All three let me approach closely for better looks at their rich rufous plumage.

The Tidal Basin and river held numerous double-crested cormorants. Cormorants are clearly making a push northward, but I am not sure that their numbers have peaked yet. Lesser scaup are also on the move. There were several large flocks on the Tidal Basin, river, and Washington Channel. Red-breasted mergansers are also passing through. A sure sign of spring is the return of the railroad bridge ospreys. One was arranging the nest on top of the trestle, and a second was perched on the piling below.

As I made my way south to the point, strong winds made it difficult to see what might be on the river. So I stayed close to the golf course fence instead. As a result, I got a decent look at a swamp sparrow. Near the point I deviated from my original plan and approached the river walk again. As a result of that chance decision, I saw two American pipits on the concrete path. This was a chance sighting in a second way as well; since the first bird I saw on the path was a song sparrow, I assumed the others would be as well, but took a second look anyway. (It is always a good idea to take a second look!) It was only then that I noticed the thrush-like posture, ungainly strut, and bobbing tail that are characteristic of American pipits. This was an exciting sighting since I have only seen pipits once before. There was a third pipit on the other side of the point. At the tip of Hains Point, I spotted three Bonaparte's gulls among the fleet of ring-billed gulls.

On the way from Hains Point, I encountered yet another odd LBJ. After checking through the various field marks - notched tail with white outer feathers, white eye ring, white supercilium with hatching, striped breast, etc. - I determined that the bird was a vesper sparrow. Like today's fox sparrows, this vesper sparrow was very cooperative and stayed in the grass about five feet away while I examined it in detail. It is not every day that one gets such a good look at an unusual bird.

Before calling it a day, I stopped by the Indian Museum to check the wetland display. Oddly enough, that was where I saw my first white-throated sparrows of the day. I am not sure how I went almost a whole day without seeing them. A final treat was a Cooper's hawk circling the Capitol's reflecting pool.


Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Bald Eagle
Cooper's Hawk
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Vesper Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

Roll mouse over images for attribution and species name.