Harris’s Sparrow

Someone said that it is a truly Canadian bird because the only place it breeds and takes care of its young is in Canada. And in the subarctic above the tree line at that. To be sure other birds breed here, but they do so in other places as well. The Lapland Longspur for one. But the Harris’s Sparrow is unique. It raises its young on the verge of the edge of the Canadian tundra.

I first became aware of this bird, a large sparrow, from the work of Christopher Norment, who studied the Harris’s Sparrow) for his doctoral dissertation in the late1980s. Like me, Dr. Norment is an avid canoeist and returned several times in the 1970s and 1980s to a remote cabin at or near the waypoint 64°49′59″N 102°10′00″W, just 1 ̊.51′ degrees south of the Arctic Circle.

William Hoare and John Knox built the first cabin at this location in 1928. The outpost was the culmination of the work of David Hanbury and J.B. Tyrrel, two 19th-century explorers whose dream was to create a wildlife sanctuary in the watershed of the Hanbury and Thelon rivers. It was to serve as the living quarters for a warden whose job would be to police the sanctuary against poachers. The site of the cabin was named Warden’s Grove because of its location in a grove of black spruce. The project was abandoned in 1932 because of the unfeasibility of a patrol in such a vast landscape.

Listening to Chris Norment on a cold Saturday in February 2008 during the annual Wilderness Canoe Symposium confirmed that I needed to travel to the Thelon River. It wasn’t the only reason I had to go, but it tipped the scales in the direction of the inevitable. Indeed, David Pelly’s description of the Thelon as a river sanctuary and the numerous past WSC presenters who spoke about the beauty and remoteness of the tundra did their part in growing my appetite to venture into the wild.

What Chris had to say about three summers he spent from 1989 to 19911 at the lonely outpost in a cabin built in the early 1970s intrigued me that February evening. Not the long bug-infested days on the open tundra watching the habits of an unremarkable-looking sparrow. Nor the days spent practicing Buddha-like patience to record and document every movement of the said sparrow. Rather his enthusiasm for the knowledge he had garnered about this remarkable bird.

In the North American winter, the Harris’s Sparrow lives at the edge of the tree line that borders the great plains. It shelters in the trees and forages on the grasslands in the mid-Western states of Kansas, Oklahoma and North Texas. Sometime about mid to late June, the bird begins a 4000 km trek to the Northwest Territories to the trees that border the Thelon River. The warmth of the river valley allows for the growth of a thin verge of trees along the banks, eerily similar to the verge land surrounding the Great Plains. Beyond the black spruce is the tundra. The sparrow takes refuge in the low bushes between the tree line and the black spruce forest and forages for grassland seeds, berries and the larvae of insects.

Over the next year and a half, I searched for an expedition heading down the Thelon River. And sometime during the winter of 2009, I contacted a group advertising for participants on the Wilderness Canoe Association website. They were planning a trip for the summer of 2010. Perfect! (There is something to be said about not going on a wilderness canoe trip with people you don’t know. But that’s another story!)

The trip’s itinerary was to canoe down the turbulent Elk River for the first ten days to where it met the Thelon. We would travel another nine days from the confluence to Warden’s Grove. By the time we reached the endpoint, I had added several new birds to my life list, including the Lapland Longspur, Pacific Loon, Arctic Tern with fledglings, and nesting Whimbrels. I’m sure I might have added others had I known about gull and raptor identification.

When we reached the vicinity of Warden’s Grove, I had yet to see a single Harris’s Sparrow. That was about to change. On a clear and bright day (they were all clear and bright), my canoe partner, who I thought had little interest in birds, shouted, “A Harris’s Sparrow!” I reached for my binoculars and had enough time to confirm the identification; a large brown variegated sparrow streaked with black when a Parasitic Jaeger snatched it from the air. Two “lifers” in the blink of an eye, one now vanished before my eyes.

As it turned out, that single sighting was my only chance to see the Harris’s Sparrow. My travel partners had no interest in going on a birding trip across the river to locate the Wardens Grove cabin where Chris Norment had conducted his doctoral research. A solo trip across the river was a more risky proposition than I wanted to take on. The opportunity to see the bird in its breeding ground was lost.

In the middle of November this year, word went out on the local birding Facebook group that a rare bird had shown up in my neck of the woods – Waterloo Region, Ontario. “This bird is the only endemic breeding species in Canada,” a local birding expert proclaimed. I grabbed my binoculars and camera and headed out like many others, searching for the Harris’s Sparrow. No luck. Then there was a rumour that the sparrow, hanging with a small flock of Fox Sparrows, had finally left the region. And then it was spotted again! After about a week, I saw the bird, identified it and captured it in pixels.

Harris’s Sparrow November 17, 2022, Photograph by Barry Cull

“Yes, that’s one confused Harris’s Sparrow … I always think that the wanderers must be young birds,” Chris Norment wrote after I had emailed him my picture. Perhaps the bird’s confusion has been exacerbated by the global climate crisis, which has led to permafrost thawing in many places in the far north. Indeed the Harris’s Sparrow is not the only vagrant bird people have seen around Waterloo this past year. The Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Tufted Titmouse, Varied Thrush, and White-Eyed Vireo are among others. While thrilling to identify and photograph, these out-of-area wanderers are perhaps harbingers of the impact of global warming.

1 Christopher Norment happened to be at Wardens’s Grove on a canoe trip across the Northwest Territories in 1978 when a Soviet satellite came down in the vicinity of Warden’s Grove. Operation Morning Light was the name given for the joint Canadian and American military operation to recover the radioactive debris. A CBC description of the podcast covering the history of the operation can be found here. The Podcast Operation Morning Light can be found on Apple or Spotify podcasts.

Suggested Reading

Return to Warden’s Grove – Christopher Norment An account of the research into the Harris’s Sparrow from 1989 to 1991.

Thelon: A River Sanctuary – David Pelly The history of the exploration and creation of Canada’s first wilderness sanctuary.

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