Lincoln’s Sparrow, by Thomas Bancroft
- Last Updated: August 28, 2018
The crisp morning air, maybe in the low 40s, gave the June morning freshness as I hiked along the trail by Lower Tiffany Lake. Tall living lodgepole pines and Engelmann spruce dotted the shoreline while straight skeletons of burnt trees rose above sapling pines and spruce on the slope above the trail. I had not heard an airplane or car motor since my buddy and I left Winthrop early on the previous day to head north into the Okanogan National Forest. This lake was more than an hour drive from any human habitation and quite a ways back from the nearest dirt road. The sun had not yet crested Rock Mountain to the east and the water, flat as glass, reflected the granite ridge on the west side. A bird sang, and my first thought was House Wren, but then I paused to look back and forth across this area, mumbling, "Not the right habitat, too high in altitude and the wrong plant community."
The song was bubbly, a jumble of trills, often husky in nature, lower in pitch, then going up, before coming back down. It was a musical song that seemed to have gurgles, trills, and buzzes. After ten minutes of searching, I found the bird sitting about eight feet up on an Engelmann spruce that grew right along the lake’s bank.
A small plump sparrow with crisp streaks, a gray face and buff wash across the breast, and when it moved, its unmarked white belly flashed briefly. A Lincoln's Sparrow was defending its territory with a beautiful song and sitting prominently in plain sight. I had only seen this species outside of the breeding season when they tend to be secretive, skulking through thick brush often by themselves or with just a few other sparrows. The last time I saw one; it appeared at the edge of a briar patch for only a second before disappearing back into the thicket.
I found half dozen more along the eastern shore of Tiffany Lake. All of them were in the narrow boggy strip between the trail and the lake. They like wet areas with a thick cover of bushes and small trees. In 1833, John James Audubon discovered this species in Labrador and named it after his traveling buddy, Thomas Lincoln. This bird nests in montane forests of the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains and throughout the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska. Unlike the Song Sparrow, their song repertoire varies little across their range. Humans in the United States seem to have a more diverse dialect than these guys.
It was almost 7 AM when I turned to hurry back to camp, hoping my buddy was starting to stir; we had stayed up until 2 AM watching the half-moon rise over this wilderness valley and set behind the granite cliffs. The shadows, reflections, and winnowing snipe had kept our attention. He would be envious of my discovery. Lincoln’s Sparrows are one of the more elusive of North American birds. Audubon had commented, “We found more wildness in this species than in any other inhabiting the same country.” (Sound recording available at https://soundcloud.com/tom-bancroft-2/lisp810)