Sunday, October 01, 2006

Searching for Sharp-tailed Sparrows

This morning I went to Nine Springs to look for one of my favorite birds - Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Steve Thiessen first reported one over a week ago, but I heard from a few other birders who went to look for them that the mosquitoes were intolerable...even with repellent. Now that we've had a few nights of temperatures dipping into the 30's, the crispness of this morning seemed a perfect opportunity to try for the sparrows sans pesky blood-sucking insects.

Sharp-tailed Sparrow range map - Cornell's BNA on-line

During fall migration in Wisconsin, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows are traditionally reported in two places: Nine Springs in Madison, and in grassy habitat along Milwaukee's lakeshore. Generally, there's a pretty narrow window to catch them at Nine Springs, from late September until before mid October. The sparrows are known to breed in the upper northwest corner of the state, but I don't recall ever seeing one during spring migration.

As I made my way down the path, the sun began to rise and illuminated the fog that enshrouded the marsh. Large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds took to the air and Canada Geese called from the pond in the back. With so much fog I wondered about my chances seeing sharp-tailed sparrows, but it didn't take long for the warming sun to allay that concern.

Finding sharp-tailed sparrows often means sifting through many Swamp Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. A Marsh Wren's weak flight bears a striking similarity to the sharp-tailed's and I was almost fooled this morning by one. As visibility improved, it didn't take long to find my first sharp-tailed sparrow of the morning in a grassy area near a trail intersection.

They're beautiful and elegant looking - a smart and fancy sparrow! These particular birds are not nearly as skittish as other small sparrows, but they don't often give very good looks. They're apt to abruptly dropping and running an impressive distance on the ground before popping up again. Still, I managed to get some pretty fair pictures of them (was it the magic warbler whistle?). I just love the pumpkin-orange coloration around their faces.

After I had captured enough images, I was content with just observing them through my spotting scope, which I did for close to an hour. I watched them forage (eating smartweed seeds), preen and occasionally take part in a chase with another sparrow. But the image that remains fixed in my mind is seeing the one of the perched sparrows breathe as it boldly faced into the sunlight. See you in a year...

Link: All about the Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow from Cornell

All images 2006 © Mike McDowell

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