Sunday, October 21, 2007

Le Conte's Sparrows

Today was one of those remarkable fall days in the Midwest. Indian Summerish; cool in the morning and warming into the 70's in the afternoon. Skies as blue as possible, and the smell of senescent vegetation everywhere. In places, the maples, particularly the reds and sugars, were ablaze in vivid hues of orange and red.
So, well before first light, Tom Bain, Cheryl Harner and I packed up our gear and headed north to Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area in Wayne County, famous of late due to an abundance of Le Conte's Sparrows. These furtive skulkers are one of our smallest sparrows and normally quite difficult to find around here. They are certainly more common than is suspected, and most undoubtedly go undetected. As birders learn more about the habitats they like, more seem to be turning up.

As always, Funk produced other interesting observations. While slogging through the mire sparrow-searching, we kicked up at least 30 Wilson's Snipe, for instance. Snipe are another good example of a species that is quite easy to overlook, as they are masters of camouflage and if one doesn't venture too near, they sit tight and good luck spotting the bird. These 30 were all in an area of the wetland that was quite small; we wondered how many more must have been in the entire several thousand acres of Funk, which has much good snipe habitat.

A flock of seven Sandhill Cranes - almost a guaranteed bird at Funk anymore - also passed overhead. As is typically the deal, they alerted us to their presence far before they came into sight. The dry rattling bugles of Sandhill Cranes is one of the more haunting sounds in nature, and when delivered from high in the sky, has tremendous carrying power.
Above photo, cranes as seen from afar. They may have been nearly a mile off when I took this, yet there was no problem hearing them talk.

The tiny and normally retiring Le Conte's Sparrow speaks to the quirks of birders. Today, we had sensational bugling giant cranes that 4 feet tall with 7 foot wingspans, and odd mega-billed bogsuckers (snipe) in abundance, and it was this Lilliputian ochre-colored puffball that had everyone jumping around and cameras clicking. We had seen two Le Conte's on the way out the dike, but neither was cooperative, instead behaving in the shrinking-violet manner so typical of the species. Finally, after some serious mucking, we stumbled into a group of four. This one was quite the extrovert, leaping high in the weeds and allowing us to fawn over him for a minute or two. Unfortunately the light was not great and photos, not so great either.

The Le Conte's Sparrow is quite dashing, really. I think even a person with only marginal interest in avifauna would find one nice. From the creamy crown stripe to the intricate streaking of the back, they exhibit the best of the subtly beautiful sparrow adorments. Having to work hard to see one - at least around here - adds to the thrill of seeing one.

The wetland these Le Conte's frequented was also interesting, and perhaps telling about the inclinations of the bird. The patch that we saw them in was a bit of an oasis in a sea of invasive Reed Canary Grass, Phalaris arundinacea. Canary Grass contains little in the way of biodiversity, and thus food for sparrows. On the other hand, Le Conte's wetland was loaded with copiously fruiting Water-plantain, Alisma subcordatum, as well as three or four species of smartweeds. Sparrows really go for the achenes (seeds) of the latter. Also mixed in was nice cover in the form of two native sedges, River Bulrush, Bulboschoenus fluviatilis, and Soft-stemmed Bulrush, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani. The latter is one of the most cumbersome binomials in North American botany - Skee-no-plek-tus tab-ern-ee-mon-tan-eye. Ten syllables. Up until fairly recently, it was called Scirpus validus - Sker-pus val-ih-dus. A thrid-grader could pronounce the earlier name; now no one knows what to say. No matter, the name's not important to Le Conte's Sparrows and they liked hanging out in the stuff.

With the continued fairly mild weather projected for the next week, these sparrows ought to linger. If the chance arises, go have a look.

1 comment:

Tom said...


I could never remember Scirpus validus....I don't know why. But you can bet that not many people will forget Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani once they learn it. I think it is my favorite plant name right now.