American Tree Unicorn

As birders, we’re well aware that a species that may be rare for one area can be quite common in another. It can be a strange thing to experience nonetheless.

I’m particularly attuned to the phenomenon right now, recently returning to Colorado after spending the last year-plus in Yavapai County.

American Tree Sparrow by Jonathan Montgomery

Like when I saw an American Tree Sparrow this week, the first for my Boulder County year list. They’re fairly commonplace here during the winter months, and after those first couple late fall sightings, a bittersweet hello to an old friend/sign of the seasonal birding lull to come, they stop making much of an impression.

But this time felt more significant, as I couldn’t help but be reminded of the first Tree Sparrow I saw this year, the one that mysteriously appeared around last November at Badger Springs Wash.

I believe it was the first of the species on record in Yavapai, and birders across the state quickly scrambled to find it. Many seemed to have no trouble spotting the rarity, and fresh observations would regularly appear on eBird checklists. But when I went to look for it myself there was no trace of the sparrow.

There was the usual mix of instructions from those who’d claimed to have seen it. Some in-depth but confusing. Some brief and unhelpful, only referring to some kind of vague “X” to mark the spot. Some simply commented “continuing,” as nonchalantly as if it had been a House Finch.

The trouble was I made the assumption that this creature, accustomed to wetter northern climates, would be clinging to any source of hydration. I figured it had to be somewhere along the part of the wash where the water trickled through, figuring the ‘X’ was some kind of point where the faint streams naturally crossed.

Birding persistence can take different forms; some spend hours at a single location; for me, it’s often multiple trips. And over the next few weeks, I made several failed attempts to the hour-drive-away location, walking back and forth down the path to the Agua Fria, muttering and shaking my fist at every White-Crowned imposter along the way.

Johnathan Montgomery

By early January, desperate to try anything, I followed a whim to head in the opposite direction where the wash went dry. There I came across a pair of large crisscrossed sticks lying in the sand, a manmade ‘X’! I knew it had to be the spot, but, even so, after waiting for a couple of hours under the hot mid-day sun and endlessly playing tape the bird still would not reveal itself.

A couple of days later I tried again and encountered two birders at the X who said they had just seen the Tree Sparrow. They told me the exact bush it emerged from and insisted it would return if I was patient. They soon left, but I didn’t budge from that spot, and after about a half-hour, just when I thought that I’d have to chalk it up as another defeat, a small bird suddenly flew up outta the brush and lighted on a pricker branch.

White-wing bars, two-toned bill, little spot on breast. American Tree Sparrow. County lifer #250! It even stayed still long enough to snap a couple of undeniable proof shots.

It’s funny when I saw the recent pair of ATSPs just sitting there unfreakishly on a wire fence in Longmont, Colorado it felt like an entirely different species than the one in Arizona. Maybe that one didn’t even seem like a bird at all. Maybe it was more like an American Tree Unicorn.

But, who knows, maybe the one I just saw here is the very same anomaly from earlier this year, and, as we speak, it’s migrating back to its old desert stomping grounds where it gets to be considered something more special, and makes persistent humans feel more special for having witnessed it.

Jonathan Montgomery, NAAS Member