Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cassin's Sparrow - first Ohio record

Exciting news broke last Sunday afternoon, when veteran birder Doug Overacker announced on the Ohio Birds listserv that he may have located a Cassin's Sparrow in Shelby County, which is in western Ohio. Doug was driving along a rural lane when he heard the bird sing, but was unable to locate the sparrow despite searching.

Well, Doug went back yesterday, and Bingo! - he relocated and photographed the Cassin's Sparrow, documenting a new state record. Before I go on with this story, I want to give major kudos to Doug Overacker. This is without doubt one of the most skilled finds around here in recent memory. While Cassin's Sparrows do have distinctive songs, this species would probably be far from one's mind while in Shelby County, Ohio, and it'd be easy to ignore or miss the song amongst the quiet cacophony of other field singers. Great find, Doug.

I couldn't stand the thought of such a cool beast not too terribly far off, so after work today, I drove on over to have a look at the sparrow.

Not exactly a memorable piece of real estate. Courtesy of Google Earth, we can look down on the exact tract of land that the Cassin's Sparrow has adopted. It seems to hang out exclusively in the area circled in red - very typical western Ohio farm country, but there is a bit more to the habitat story, as we shall see.

You can see why Doug's find is significant and excites birders. The Cassin's Sparrow is very much a bird of the Great Plains and points south, where it occupies dry grasslands. Ohio is well to the east of its normal range, but these shy skulkers are well known for their proclivity to wander. There are numerous records east of the Mississippi and Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada - all of which abut Ohio - have had records. It was only a matter of time before we got one.

Here we are - ground zero at the Cassin's Sparrow site. Dave Collopy and Steve Landes keep a vigil, in particular eyeing that small tree at the end of the road - the only tree in the immediate proximity of this spot.

A closer look at the tree, which you will certainly inspect should you make this rarity chase. I believe the bulk of this woodiness is a dead American plum, with a smaller - and living - silky dogwood growing intermixed. There are thick tangles of poison ivy in there, too, look - don't touch. Anyway, the Cassin's Sparrow is for whatever reason smitten with this shrub, and perching in it is apparently a regular part of his routine.

Finally - the bird! It seems that this Cassin's Sparrow, which is a male, sings somewhat frequently at certain times of the day; that's how Doug initially found it. This morning, Ken Beers observed it "sky-larking"; doing its beautiful aerial song display. When I was there it never did sing, but made a few trips into the aforementioned tree to hang out and have a look around.

Cassin's Sparrows are plain janes, there isn't any other way to put it. But have a look at that honker of a tail, which imparts a rather unique look to the bird. And like most sparrows, it compensates for less than showy plumage with a pleasing song.

This species is in the genus Peucaea (long in Aimophila; recently moved), which includes two other species in the western U.S.: Botteri's and Rufous-winged sparrows. There is only one Peucaea (normally) in the east: Bachman's Sparrow. As I saw Ohio's last territorial Bachman's Sparrow, when I was just a young lad, as of this moment I may be the only birder to have two species of Peucaea in Ohio.

Here's a grander view of the habitat that the Cassin's Sparrow is frequenting. It is typical farm country, but there are different ways of growing crops and I think this is worth noting in this case. The field front and center is where the Cassin's seems to spend the bulk of its time. It has companions, too. This field had Grasshopper, Savannah, and Vesper sparrows, and Steve Landes heard a Henslow's Sparrow further down the road.

That's my car in the background, and the field that lies beyond is very different.

The Cassin's Sparrow field is no-till agriculture - the farmer allowed some wheat, primarily, to remain unharvested. As the field wasn't plowed under after the last crop, lots of "weeds" came up as well. You can see the new corn coming up in rows between the wheat. The upshot of no-till is that it leaves tons of food in the form of seeds, and that makes sparrows happy. It also provides structure in the form of the old weeds and remnant crops that birds can use for nesting cover.

This is the adjacent field - clean agriculture tilled thoroughly and nearly to the exclusion of all non-crop plants. There were no sparrows cavorting over here. I'm not saying that the Cassin's Sparrow picked his field because it was the only no-till field around. There are plenty of farmers who practice no-till but unfortunately they are usually outnumbered by growers that plow everything into submission. But I do think the reason the Cassin's is hanging out - and who knows how long it was present before Doug found it - is that it finds an abundance of food, and ample cover.

By the way, this Cassin's Sparrow was #366 on my Ohio list. Thanks again to Doug Overacker for his fantastic find, and I hope you get over to Shelby County to see this little charmer.



Randy Kreager said...

Nice article Jim! I wish I had some free time to go check this sparrow out. Let me know, if you would, when it visits Elmore,OH! LOL

katbird103 said...

Thanks for the interesting and informative post Jim! Not sure you got my best side in the pic though... :)

Anonymous said...

Having learned most of my birding skills from Doug and been all over the country with him, I am not surprised in the least that he recognized that song. I learned the importance of birding by ear many years ago from him, and I tell people how important it is all the time. This is a great example.

Vincent Lucas said...

Excellent find by Doug and nice blog Jim! Florida is long overdue for this species. Send it down here when you're done with it!

Mary Ann said...

heading out to look for it in the morning!!

Jan Kennedy said...

Very cool!