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.
Map courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology
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.
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.
That's my car in the background, and the field that lies beyond is very different.
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.