A female purple finch in Denton Creek Texas

A Winter Rarity

There isn’t much to see at my house feeders during winter besides the usual Texas suspects — house finches, starlings, cowbirds, and the like. A recent cold front does bring with it a visitor or two. All one has to do is have the wherewithal to get out of bed in the middle of a cold drizzle and drive miles to the middle of nowhere. Last year I decided to have my global big day at Denton Creek as a way to force me to get the lay of the land. I counted twenty-three unique species that day. If the weather were to bring anything special with feathers, Denton Creek is an ideal spot to observe. Denton Creek’s trails are ideal for mountain bikers. When it rains, it’s known for birding. I was up to the task!

Flooded waters have completely transformed what used to be a small creek a half a mile away from the creek’s entrance

The moment I stepped out of my car, wandering down a steep trail, I was astonished to see the flood waters still present. The new creek edge is host to an assortment of bugs for Song, Lincoln, and Swamp sparrows to partake in. It is amazing to think that one simple weekend of rains could change an entire ecosystem, but that is exactly what has happened. I had suddenly stepped foot onto an alien world, dynamically changing for probably the thousandth thousandth time.

A tree shows of its age and endurance

I let the sparrows feed, venturing deeper into the woods. The sound from the highway subsided to titmouse, chickadees, and cardinals. A repetitive whir whir whir was new to me. Having observed Harris sparrows fly from a farmer’s meadow not too far away, I began to wonder if this could be their song. Birds modify their calls during mating season. Having hardly made a peep at winter its very easy for a novice such as myself to just think a new call belonged to a new bird.

Harris Sparrows perch on a tree from afar

Armed with a 300mm lens I sat waiting for the birds to reveal themselves. The drizzle started to let up for a bit. Sunlight tried to pierce through thick overcast to no avail. A few minutes pass and I hear a flutter. Then another. A Song sparrow soaked in rain perched on a tree right in front of me.

A Song Sparrow perched on a branch in front of my encampment

…and then the whir whir whir of a Harris Sparrow.

A Harris Sparrow flies to my spot after a half hour or so
This is what I call the sparrow shot where you get a full picture of plumage on its breast, cheek patterns, and lovely head feathers

My gut impulse is to leave straight for the house for post-production like a little kid at a candy store. I try to force myself to work through all that. I feel relieved that I captured something descent during my trip. The rest of my time can be spent exploring.

A song sparrow perched on a branch
Yellow-rumped waxwings jump from branch to branch on the pond’s surface as if ice skating in midair
A lone white-throated sparrow perched on a branch

And I’m glad I did.

House finches have the most beautiful of bird calls. Come spring they are singing up an entire symphony. Imagine my surprise stumbling upon what appeared to be a red house finch making not a single sound. Also to note was its close companion strikingly different from your normal cream and beige color. I moved closer. House finches don’t typically have red wings, I remember thinking. I began to tremble. I wasn’t looking at a house finch and unidentified companion at all. I had sighted a rare purple finch – male and female pair. I snapped a few good shots with my camera for ID purposes. Identifying a pair opposed to a single male or female reduces the lengthly process required to positively identify a rare bird.

A female purple finch
A male and female purple finch
A female purple finch

I confirmed my bird to be a purple finch once I got home and logged my sighting in eBird to start the Identification process. My rare sighting goes through several individuals for validation purposes. They check my photography, historical records, weather patterns, and who knows what else prior to validating my assertion. But, I know this winter trip was special. Birding for me must be like astronomy was to Galileo. There must have always been that special spot in at the nighttime sky where he was anxious to observe every night. By day you are left dreaming of the void and at night your mind races to fill it.

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