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Getting to Know Sparrows

Bonnie Ott tells us who’s who

      When you hear a sparrow, do you envision only those birds under your bistro table? Bonnie Ott is here to expand your view to the many native sparrow species in our area. An expert naturalist, photographer and lifelong Howard County resident, she is more familiar with little brown birds than just about anyone.
       Share her infectious appreciation for these Maryland natives at her photo-illustrated talk, Sparrows of the Piedmont, Anne Arundel Bird Club’s February 20 program at Kinder Farm Park. 
Bay Weekly First, who are our native sparrows?
Bonnie Ott Native sparrows are timid, and they often stay in habitats that people don’t casually visit. Luckily, some will come to bird feeders, and that’s one of the best ways to observe them. 
Bay Weekly What about house sparrows?
Bonnie Ott House sparrows are an introduced species from England. They frequent places where people are and tend to be tame little creatures.
Bay Weekly How many sparrow species do we have in Maryland? 
Bonnie Ott Every October we do a Sparrow Big Day, counting as many species as possible. We might see 900 individual birds, but we see 12 sparrow species at the max. Sparrows arrive in huge numbers in the fall, but you can go out at any time of year in central Maryland and find sparrows, unlike many other bird types.
Bay Weekly How did you get into nature study? 
Bonnie Ott I spent all my time as a kid in the woods, and I began seriously birding as a teenager. My very first guided bird walk was led by Chan Robbins, the late patriarch of Maryland ornithology. He was a great influence on me. I saw that he spent time really watching the birds; he truly enjoyed each and every one. 
Bay Weekly How did you get to be a sparrow specialist? 
Bonnie Ott I fell in love with sparrows from that first field trip. I was an art major, and their beautiful subtle tones attracted me. Also, sparrows have some of the most beautiful songs. 
     When I began birding, Howard County was prime sparrow habitat, before so much development. There’s been a huge decline in all the species requiring grassland habitat: savannah, vesper and grasshopper sparrows. Grasshopper sparrows used to nest in large colonies; now it’s almost impossible to find one. That’s a very concerning and sad thing. 
Bay Weekly Your field students say it’s been hard to keep up with you.
Bonnie Ott Sparrow habitat can be challenging to traverse. You can be in heavy brush or in water up to your knees. I had a reputation for leading very rigorous, long field trips, covering miles in a day. 
Bay Weekly But your style of birding has changed over the years …
Bonnie Ott I think photography pushed me over the edge. I like to get birds doing behaviors and that takes patience. I have stopped chasing rare birds. I would much rather spend time getting to know the local song sparrows in the park and study their different plumages and behaviors. Carrying camera equipment, I don’t go as fast or far. But even now, I’ll start at sunrise and end at sunset.
Bay Weekly How many sparrow photos do you have? 
Bonnie Ott About 900, and those are only the good ones that I’ve kept. I’m always looking to add more plumages — variations in feathers due to season, maturity, region, etc. — to my collection. Researchers ask me for my photos because of the diversity of plumages. I donate my photos; it makes me feel like I’m doing something good with my time outside. 
Bay Weekly Many birders avoid sparrow identificaton because they’re so challenging. Will your talk include ID tips? 
Bonnie Ott Yes, and I’ll tailor the program for beginning and intermediate birders.
Get to know your sparrows: Wednesday, February 20, 
7-9pm, Kinder Farm Park, Visitor Center, Millersville; refreshments served: 410-703-4664.