(This 1229th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 12, 2014.)


Java Sparrow at the Grimmer's feeder


Much birdwatching involves searches in hope that you will find some unusual species. But there are times when you simply have to sit or stand and wait for a bird to appear. While I was sitting recently in Carol Grimmer's Bowmansville backyard waiting in hope that I would see the Java sparrow that had appeared at her feeder, I thought about some of my similar past experiences.


A homeowner in the Southern Tier once invited a group of us to visit and see the European goldfinch coming to her feeder. Although this goldfinch is quite similar to our American species, the male is easily distinguished by its red face. For a brief time in the first half of the 20th century these birds established a colony on Long Island and they were even found nesting in New York's Central Park, but those communities are long gone. After about an hour the bird did appear and posed for us for several minutes. Like the Java finch, it was almost certainly an escaped cage bird.


I have seen a number of other species under similar conditions. Two homeowners, one in Clarence, the other in Lockport, gave me an opportunity to see varied thrushes, robin-like birds from the far northwest that occasionally stray eastward. A major field mark is a black bar across their chest.


But such visits were often unrewarded. A group of us traveled up north of Lake Nippising to see a reported group of rosy finches. We sat watching for them for hours in front of a house where they had been seen, but they never arrived. The trip was still worth our time because the snow-covered lawn was crowded with handsome pine grosbeaks with one lonely evening grosbeak as well.


And there were near misses too: A half hour after we left Toronto to return to Buffalo from an attempt to see an acorn woodpecker, the bird was seen there. And the Townsend's solitaire that appeared along the Niagara Escarpment eluded me at least a half dozen mornings before I finally saw it.


An interesting episode took place in rural Canada where about thirty of us waited at roadside to see a brambling, a European wanderer, that was coming to a feeder. The homeowner came out and asked us to back off to the other side of the road from her home. Like sheep we all dutifully crossed over despite the fact that this was a public highway. In any case the bird did finally appear.


Easily my most exciting wait was my attempt to see a two-headed chipping sparrow that a reader reported coming to her feeder near Hamlin. Such strange mutations do occur among animals: we have what have been termed Siamese twins and I have seen photos of a two-headed snake. Unfortunately, the reader's photo of this bird was so blurred that it was impossible to confirm the observation, so I was willing to commit my time in hope to see it.


Finally, just as I was ready to give up on the second day, the sparrow appeared and indeed I thought that I was seeing this exceptionally rare occurrence. When I focused my binoculars on it, however, I was able to see that, instead of a second head, the little sparrow had a head-sized burr stuck to its shoulder. I wonder today if that poor bird was ever able to shake it off.


I awoke from these daydreams just in time to see the Java finch first fly up to a fencepost and then pose for me at the nearest feeder. I even had an opportunity to take photographs. It had the general appearance of a junco, but its head was strikingly marked with black, white and red.


Mrs. Grimmer had first contacted me because she was worried that this exotic species would not make it when the weather turned cold. She finally decided to buy a bird cage and set it out with its door open and food scattered inside.


I received an excited call from her a few days later to say that she had captured the little finch just after our first cold snap. The bird seemed to understand that it would be better off caged than free to suffer another night like that.


Sadly, the capture was too late. The Java finch died after another two days, probably from that one night in the cold.-- Gerry Rising