A quest for a sparrow

Haven't posted in awhile, so during the next week I'll be writing about some of my recent birding highlights. First up is the Nelson's Sparrow!



  For a few years I've been meaning to do a really thorough search for Nelson's Sparrow on the peninsula, as it's a species I've never seen but know is annual. Nelson's Sparrows are small, brown and orange songbirds that breed along the shorelines of Hudson and James Bays and winter along the Atlantic in the southeastern United States. They are very rarely seen during spring migration, when they are in a hurry to get to their breeding grounds and skirt by us here in Southern Ontario. During fall migration they take a more relaxed approach, and for several weeks in early October birders have a chance to see them as they pass through. Some locations in Ottawa, Hamilton and Chatham-Kent get them annualy, but birders there put in much more effort. Elsewhere though they are far more difficult, but this isn't necessarily because they are that rare, but because they are very difficult to find and get a view of. This is probably a good time to mention that Nelson's Sparrows are actually wannabe mice, if they have a choice they will scurry along the ground, using flight as a last resort... their preferred habitat? Dense grasses in wet areas like marshed and shoreline edges. Wondeful isn't it? Anyways the whole Oliphant shoreline is prefect Nelson's habitat, and I know that these slippery little buggers are in there every fall, just laughing it up. Oh yeah, Bruce County only has 3 records of Nelson's, which is rather bananas.

  So, on the morning October 9th I set out with Jarmo Jalava with the goal of finding one of these skulky grass dwellers. We began our quest in north Oliphant, where we donned our rubber boots and headed out for a walk along the coast. The method behind the madness? Randomly walk through the grasses and hope that a sparrow flushes ahead of you, which will then give you a window of a few seconds to identify it before it drops back into the grass. After over an hour of walking through some challenging terrain, I had nothing to show for it besides 50 Song Sparrows and one rubber boot that turned out to not be waterproof. We decided to move on to our next location, aiming to be done before noon when the rain was supposed to move in. I left my camera in the car this time, going on the assumption that if I didn't have it the bird would show itself. Another half hour passed, more song sparrows appeared and more water soaked into my increasingly soggy sock. Then it happened, a small sparrow flushed ahead of me and landed in a dead cedar. I had my binoculars on it in a flash and sure enough, it was a Nelson's! I frantically waved Jarmo over and he managed a quick view before it disappeared into the grasses again. I retrieved my camera from the car and rejoined Jamro, who was keeping an eye on the spot the bird had gone into. After a bit of searching we flushed it again, but this time it flew to a further, even more inaccessible location. Although we didn't get photos the views were awesome, so we left it in peace and moved on. A few minutes later Jamro flushed another sparrow, which turned out to be a 2nd Nelson's, this one much duller in colouration than the first. It was starting to rain at this point and I for one was getting quite hungry, so we headed out and left the sparrows to their mysterious ways.

I returned later that day with some other Bruce birders, and this time I managed to get a few photos of the one bird ~ quite horrible ones but I'll take them!

- Nelson's Sparrow 


- The classic view of a Nelson's 



An American Golden-plover landed briefly while we were there, which was a nice treat.


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