Posted by: Dan | June 4, 2006

An elusive sparrow

Although neither the weather nor my schedule have been very helpful in birdwatching this past week, I did have the chance to attempt adding another bird species to my life list: Grasshopper Sparrow.

As it happens, there’s a field that I have frequent access to that has been consistently reported to have breeding Grasshopper Sparrows in years past. So, armed with my binoculars, field guide, and having recently listened to recordings of this species, my Dad and I went for a short walk over to the field in question.

Approaching, we thought we heard the very high-pitched, buzzy, Savannah Sparrow-ish song of a Grasshopper Sparrow, but perhaps we were talking too much to be sure. Certainly, we were far too casually assuming that whatever it was would continue singing while we came closer, to hear its song more closely. We were wrong.

The field, with its high grass surrounded by spruce and cedar trees, is excellent Grasshopper Sparrow habitat, and this bird has been seen before signing from atop the bordering trees. This time, the spruces that may have been hosting the sparrow were empty of birds by the time we got within view, at about 50-60yds. The song had stopped, and although we waited, listening to other birds, it seemed to have left.
Grasshopper Sparrow
But it wasn’t a total loss – we were able to see and hear several other notable birds while we stood there. Bobolinks, Bluebirds, Song Sparrows, a Willow Flycatcher, a House Wren and its fledgelings, Common Yellowthroat, Red-Winged Blackbirds, and more, offered us a pleasant performance in the brief half-hour during our walk, at least.

But because of my passing interest in Grasshopper Sparrows, I thought I’d provide a description of their conservation status and habitat preferences:

Although there are 12 recognized subspecies across their range (from Alberta and New England to Columbia and Equador), Grasshopper Sparrows are declining throughout this range from habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. This elusive sparrow-named for its buzzy song-is sensitive to subtle changes in its habitat. As soon as a weedy field becomes overgrown or trees have filled in an abandoned pasture, the Grasshopper Sparrow no longer uses the site for breeding. In some parts of the country it chooses different habitats, such as palmetto grasslands in Florida. Less of a seed-eater than our other grass sparrows, it feeds largely on insects. When flushed, this sparrow flies a short distance and drops out of sight, into tall grass. Because of its elusive behavior, difficult-to-hear voice, and often-changing choice of nesting sites, it has been difficult for conservation experts to accurately gauge the status of this sparrow.


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