Friday, October 31, 2014

Ammodramus Drama

Quiz Bird! What's this blending into the grass?
No one would accuse the sparrows in the genus Ammodramus of being flashy. They are quintessentially "birder's birds": while a sighting can make a birder ecstatic, a non-birder wouldn't give them a second glance. Of course, a non-birder probably wouldn't even get a first glance. Sibley refers to all 7 Northern American species as "secretive" (including the "very secretive" Henslow's), and it is precisely this that makes them so sought after: they are usually really hard to find! And managing to track one down is a classic thrill of birding. 

In the US, we have the coastal marsh specialist Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows, both United States endemics, the grassland-dwelling Grasshopper Sparrow, the Nelson's Sparrow, with both coastal and inland populations, and three inland species, all very hard to find: Le Conte's, Henslow's, and Baird's. I had seen the first four, but the latter three have eluded me. Baird's isn't even really on the radar of an East Coast birder, and Henslow's is an impressive rarity. Le Conte's, however, I had chased once, at Milford Point in Connecticut. Someone saw the bird fly into a small clump of marsh grass: us birders peered in, carefully searching for the slightest movement. Impossibly, the bird snuck out without anyone getting so much as a glimpse. 
The Ammodramus I've seen most: Saltmarsh Sparrow. I took this while
kayaking in Green Harbor, MA this past summer
So when I woke up Thursday for class, and saw an email saying that a birder had found a Le Conte's Sparrow in Danehy Park, less than a 20 minute walk away in the northern part of Cambridge, I quickly switched my plans for the morning. I could always catch up on the lecture material. And it was an evolutionary biology class anyway: I was just taking a more field-based approach! So I swapped books for binoculars and walked to the park.

When a got to the cattail marsh where the bird had been seen, there were two birders there, who pointed to the exact grassy edge where they had seen the bird 30 minutes previously. I started searching. 

And searching. And searching some more. There were plenty of sparrows around: mostly White-throated, Song, and Swamp, but with a nice Field Sparrow mixed in too. That was a good pickup: a new bird for my college "public transport" list: all of the species I've seen with only my legs and the MBTA. 
The top Cambridge birding sites and the core of my public transport list: Danehy Park is in blue,
Alewife Brook is green, Fresh Pond orange, and Mount Auburn Cemetery red. 
After about 40 minutes of pacing the same 50 foot stretch of grass searching for the bird, I tried a different part of the marsh. No success on the Le Conte's, but I picked up another nice bird for the day and for my state and local lists: an Orange-crowned Warbler preening on a distant branch, which briefly flew close and posed, and then disappeared. Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers were also around in abundance. 

But as nice as they were, there weren't the reason I was cutting class. I returned to the sparrow spot to continue the search. A few more scans of the reeds and sedges yielded nothing new. But then a sparrow flew up from the grass practically at my feet. Even in flight I instantly knew what it was: it was strikingly small, pale, and short-tailed: the Le Conte's! 
Le Conte's Sparrow!
Fortunately it didn't go far, landing only a few feet away, though slightly hidden. Then it scurried into the open, and briefly gave fantastic looks perched in plain view on a fallen reed: a perfect view of a very pretty sparrow. 
Such a nice sparrow
As sparrows go, the Le Conte's Sparrow is a beautifully plumaged bird: intricately patterned in cream, yellow, brown, with pale streaking on the back and an pastel orange face. When it was in the open in was striking, but it could quickly blend and fade back into the undergrowth as it moved behind vegetation. After getting a couple great looks I ran to the edge of the field to call over the other birder looking for it (who happened to be big year champ Neil Hayward). By the time we returned, the bird had vanished.
A more typical look at a Le Conte's, partially hidden by vegetation
A few more scans along the spot where it had been were fruitless, but again the bird suddenly flew up from the very edge of the marsh, this time actually perching in the open in the lower branches of a shrub. It stayed there, posing, for a few seconds before again dropping into the sedges. This time, though, we were close enough to be able to follow its progress as it snuck through the grass, moving as if it were a mouse: occasionally it popped into view, but even though we were only feet away it was hidden for much of the time. After another brief but good unobstructed view, I had to leave the bird to its skulking and head back to school. But I think I made the right decision on how to spend my morning!
"Bird Quiz" Revisited: Obviously it's the Le Conte's Sparrow. But check out how the
intricate back and face pattern, so striking when it is in the open,
allow it to disappear into the reeds. What a bird!

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