• Doug Hitchcox

Harris's Sparrow - a 2019 rarity experience

The twitch is on: A HARRIS'S SPARROW was photographed by Carol Belanger at her feeder in Levant, Maine on 6 Dec. She posted the photos on the MAINE Birds Facebook Group to confirm the ID and it has been seen daily since, to the delight of many chasers.

This is about the 10th record of Harris's Sparrow in Maine (the ME-BRC has only reviewed and accepted two records so far) but is the first chaseable in over three decades. The most interesting thing, to me, about this bird is how it exemplifies how far rarity chasing has come...

First of all, Carol is an AMAZING host to coordinate visits and allow a bunch of strangers to hang out in her kitchen all day. The birds at her feeders are very skittish so watching from inside is really the best option. Here we are on the morning of 7 Dec waiting for the bird:

Digital Photography

This has been talked about for a long time but yes, again, digital photography has completely changed birding. The increase in low-cost high-quality digital cameras has allowed exponentially more people to document and share bird sightings. Over 367,000 photos were uploaded to the Macaulay Library in November 2019 alone! This also seems to be assisting in lowering the barrier to entry into birding for many photographers. Carol (the Harris's Sparrow host) mentioned that it has only been in the last couple years that she has gotten into bird photography and it was really thanks to her birding friends.


Social media has definitely helped birding grow and especially when we look at the reporting/discovery of rare birds. The ABA's "What's this bird?" Facebook Group routinely identifies state-firsts or other regional MEGAs and the MAINE Birds Facebook Group has surfaced rarities: Bullock's Oriole (2), Swainson's Hawk, Tropical Kingbird, etc.

This may require its own blog post, but Facebook groups appear to rule the day in 2019 for rare bird reporting. eBird is King but has many shortcomings (like delivery speeds) that many social media apps outperform on. 1.62 billions people use Facebook daily so there is no wonder why it is winning but it only seems a matter of time before the next greatest (fastest) alternative comes along. Listservs still occupy a special niche in rare bird reporting but are slowly approaching their own extinction. I do fear we are heading into a rare-bird-reporting-future of hyper-local alternatives that dilute the entire pool to the point that you miss more than you know about because you can't check all the options. For example, many states and even regions within are using group texting apps like WhatsApp or GroupMe. These have great advantages but currently have high barriers to join, assuming you even know about them.

Facebook Messenger

Perhaps one of the most 2019esque part of this Harris's Sparrow twitch is that the homeowner wants birders to coordinate visits through Facebook Messenger. I have no problem with this. In my opinion when someone hosts a rare bird, assuming they are okay with visitors, they should be able to define every aspect of visitation: when, how, etc. I just find this interesting because after sharing her find on Maine's Listserv (am I living in the past?) I had several people ask for other ways to connect because they didn't use Facebook. I don't blame them! There are so many reasons we should not use Facebook (Google it...) but as long as it is turning up all these rare birds I think we are stuck with it.

Gone are the days of calling your state Audubon and pressing "3" to listen to the weekly recording of what rare birds are being seen across the state. Soon to be gone are the "HARRIS'S SPARROW - Levant, 6-7 Dec" emails. Bring on the privacy-stealing apps that tells us of rare birds within seconds of them being found...

By Doug Hitchcox