Five Birds to Listen For in the Delta this Winter

The wide-open winter landscapes in the Delta can make many birds easier to hear than see among the stubble of soybean, cotton, and rice fields. Some of you will be joining us for a winter birding field trip this weekend, but even if you’re not, here are five bird sounds (none sparrows!) that are worth studying before a winter trip through the Delta:

1. Western Meadowlark: The scientific name is Sturnella neglecta, but don’t neglect these western birds if you’re out and about in the Delta. The Delta is visited by a good number of these close relatives of our Eastern Meadowlark. You need very good looks at multiple field marks to distinguish them by plumage, but the voices are distinct.

Compare to the “spring is so beautiful” song of the Eastern:

(credit Erik Johnson for that mnemonic)

2. Lapland Longspur: One of my favorite winter birds. One of the most abundant grassland birds up north, but their winter range just dips down into the Delta. In cold years they get to the southern end of the Delta, but they’re more numerous in the northern counties. Listen for their distinctive flight call:

3. American Pipit: A common winter visitor to open agricultural areas. We even get some of these in the hills too, but they’ll be more common in the Delta. [Don’t be confused by the “Buff-bellied Pipit” name at Xeno-Canto. Taxonomists are a factious lot by nature (maybe fractious too), so there are competing naming schemes out there. The scientific name is the same in this case, Anthus rubescens, and even that is not true for all birds.]

4. Sprague’s Pipit: Really fascinating bird. Worthy of a post all its own. Let it suffice that this little grassland obligate’s bland plumage belies its true coolness. We get a handful of these endangered birds in the Delta annually, and it’s worth keeping an ear out for their distinctive alarm/flight call. You might, as Gene Knight did, find yourself riding down the road with the windows down and hear one flush from the road side. Never mind why you’ve got the windows down in the Delta in the winter.

5. Sandhill Crane: Okay, they’re my token “charismatic avian megafauna” entry in this list. Sure, you’re probably going to see these huge birds hanging out in the middle of a field. BUT, you might be scrutinizing a field for Lapland Longspurs and hear a few Sandhills flying over. I can think of two of my trips where we struck out on finding Sandhills in the fields but had a small group fly over:

Note: Each of these recording links have been chosen to be more or less “representative”, but listening to some of the other recordings on Xeno-Canto will give you a better feel for the variability of individual calls/songs. And, as always, each of these birds makes many sounds. E.g., the Western Meadowlark has a distinctive “chupp” call that many find useful. Good fodder for discussion in the comments below.

Enjoy. And we’ll see some of you Saturday.