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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Damn Nature, You Scary!

WARNING!!!!! Graphic nature images to follow!

This winter, for reasons unbeknownst to me, I’ve been exceptionally good at finding Fox Sparrows. It’s not like I ever find them in any numbers – one here, a second there, and that’s it. But for several weeks in December, it seemed like every birding site James and I visited had at least a Fox Sparrow or two, but it wasn’t always easy to find them. Sometimes I’d spy one at the very top of a tree acting like a finch, and sometimes one would skulk in the undergrowth like a towhee. But no matter what, we would always find them.

This one we found at Mason Farm is totally unrelated to the later bird, but it really illustrates my point.

The Durham Christmas Bird Count proved no different. After we’d scoured the mudflats near the mouth of Ellerbe Creek on Falls Lake, James and I found ourselves following the railroad tracks and checking the tree-line for additional species. Suddenly, I saw a large passerine flush from our left, landing in the gravel on the near side of the tracks. At first I thought it was a female Northern Cardinal – it was about the right size, and I caught a glimpse of rufous as it passed. Upon sighting the bird in my binoculars, however, I immediately recognized it as yet another Fox Sparrow.

Hum dee dum dumm... just a Fox Sparrow minding my own business...

James started sidling up to the bird. Hunkered down near some pine straw, it appeared the bird thought itself well-camouflaged, and it refused to move even as James inched closer. Eventually, James stood no more than ten feet away from it, a feat I’ve never seen a Fox Sparrow repeat in my entire birding career. This bird must be acclimated to humans or something, perhaps used to the fishermen that walk the tracks on their way to catch a carp or two. Then, as James stood over it, the Fox Sparrow turned its head.


That’s why the Fox Sparrow didn’t move as James got closer. Not that it didn’t care, or that it chose to ignore him, but that the sparrow literally couldn’t see James coming from the left side of its body. Its eye lay dangling out of its socket, probably the result of a failed attack, perhaps by a fox or a Cooper’s Hawk. Looking at this picture, I wonder if the optic nerve remained connected, but I can’t imagine how debilitating this must be for the bird. Eventually, the Fox Sparrow turned its head so its good eye was facing James, and upon noticing the encroaching human, flew off for the safety of the bushes.

Nothin' to see here folks... nope, no hanging eye-ball or anything...

Of all the Fox Sparrows in all the world, we got to see the one that couldn’t see us, an incredible feat of survival in the one-eyed face of adversity. I may never again get this close to one of these birds, and if this is what it takes for Fox Sparrow proximity, I may never want to. I don’t often get grossed out by this kind of thing, but I almost couldn’t handle this bird… because, damn nature. You scary.


  1. Hey, looks to me like that Fox Sparrow has an engorged tick on its face.
    -Vin the grine

  2. Vin - I did think about that, but it also looks like there's some formerly ocular nerve attached to whatever the orb is... perhaps if it is a tick, it attached itself right to the eye and sucked all the fluid up, causing the eye to fall out? Still gross either way, lol!

  3. That's crazy. You find the oddest stuff at Ellerbe.

    Mark K