Far too soon for White-throated Sparrows ??

White-throated Sparrows are cheery little birds that we are always willing to give a welcome to as they pass through the Montreal region on their spring and fall migrations. Although they have been recorded here in every one of the twelve months of the year you can see from this abundance chart for Montreal, that they are normally with us only from mid April for a couple of weeks. … eBird wanted proof of the sighting before accepting our report from today, which got us thinking about what might be going on.

Today is the 6 February, a good two months before their expected appearance and yet we saw a group of perhaps 8-10 birds happily scratching around the bottom of some West Island bushes this morning. Not the first sighting this winter, either. What were the birds up to, and why this far north?

Don’t believe us? Here is the proof:

“Birds of North America” (https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/whtspa/distribution#migroute) tells us that (quote) “Spring migration occurs from mid Mar to late May.” and that “In s. Ontario, peak of migration is last week of Apr to mid-May.” Furthermore, migration in this species is triggered by lengthening daylight as spring approaches so, in fact, climate change should not be affecting their migratory behaviour.

So if not very early migrants could it be that these are winter residents? There are (see map below) year-round populations in the southern parts of New York State and Vermont, not too far away, which leads us to wonder if we are seeing yet another species starting to push it’s way further north in the wake of Wild Turkeys. Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens amongst several others in recent years?  It does not seem unreasonable to infer that these birds might be either year-round residents (unlikely) or else northern migrants who have chosen to stay in the Montreal area rather than pushing further southwards.

We had also seen four of these birds at the same location on 4 January and other birders have seen one or two such birds nearby (Morgan Arboretum) for the past few weeks and half a dozen isolated reports are available this winter within perhaps 15km of where these birds were seen. Comments on the FB page of Ottawa Field Naturalists have indicated that a small number of White-throated Sparrows are also, atypically, being seen in the Ottawa area. Interesting to speculate.

Thoughts of other birders are invited. Are we seeing the start of yet another species pushing northwards?

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