Sparrow Spotting

As the numbers of passing warblers and shorebirds begin to dwindle, before the wintering geese and finches arrive in force, sparrow season peaks in southern New York. October is prime time for seeking out these sneaky, streaky, subtle birds in the tangled vegetation of thickets and wetlands. I kicked off my mid-month weekend with a Saturday morning trip to Plumb Beach, now an annual tradition. I was greeted by Song and Savannah Sparrows along the edge of the trails from the parking lot, along with a handful of Monarch Butterflies feeding on wildflowers. The primary quarry for the outing, however, was hiding in the marsh itself. My search led me to the far eastern edge of the property where a tidal creek empties into the inlet. When I reached the outflow, I found some local birders and an assemblage of furtive shadows flitting through the swaying grasses. A handful of the visible individuals could be confidently identified as Nelson’s Sparrows, the main reason I visit Plumb Beach with any consistency.

There were over half a dozen sparrows scrambling about through the area, and many provided surprisingly good looks. Unfortunately, clear views are not always enough to sort Nelson’s Sparrows from the increasingly common hybrid offspring that result from their pairing with Saltmarsh Sparrows. Authorities previously considered these two populations as the same species, and it seems that the birds may still. I photographed a number of tweeners with a confusing mix of characteristics, including breast streaking that was blurry enough for Nelson’s but extensive enough for Saltmarsh. I’m glad that eBird has an option for reporting these unidentifiable members of the complex.

I met up with Miriam later in the day, and we took a brief jaunt over to Hofstra University. Although Miriam spends plenty of time studying on her campus, our goals for the afternoon were not so scholarly. I’d heard word of a Clay-colored Sparrow that was seen in a mixed species flock near the field hockey stadium. Since I needed it for the year and she needed it for her life list, we decided to make chase. I picked up a promising call note in the ornamental trees along the eastern fence, but Miriam was the first to get a visual. The sleepy sparrow was nestled against the trunk in some dense branches, chirping intermittently as it gradually drifted off. The bird looked bright-eyed and healthy when it was alert, but it seemed like it was just plumb tuckered out. Super adorable. We left the little visitor to its nap and took our leave.

I was out and about again on Sunday, and I followed another Clay-colored report straight to another Clay-colored, this one sighted by Mike Z at the Jones Beach hedgerow. A local Scout troop was camping at the Coast Guard Station, and there were still some hungry mosquitos around, but avian activity was fairly low. I scanned the gulls at the West End 2 lot on my way out, pausing to photograph a cluster of Lesser Black-backs among the loafing flock of more common species.

The winds off the ocean were decently strong despite a subpar direction of origin, so I decided to put in a few hours seawatching at Robert Moses. I was joined by Pat L for a decent chunk of my vigil, and I was happy with the results of my efforts. Concentrations of gannets and scoters are starting to increase again, and we spied a few pods of Bottlenose Dolphins moving through the surf. I noticed a distant Great Cormorant flying with a Double-crest, and Pat pointed out a shearwater on the horizon that was too far to confirm our suspicions that it was a Cory’s. Maybe not the most spectacular seawatch ever, but a perfectly pleasant time staring at the edge of the water.

Landbird action remained notably unimpressive throughout the morning. I did a quick circuit of relatively underbirded spots on my way back west, just to see if there was anything noteworthy lurking about on this quiet day. Captree Island hosted some lazy egrets, and the Jones Tower Peregrines were in position when I passed in both directions. I ended up inadvertently flushing a large flock of Green-winged Teal off the hidden pools at Tobay Beach’s JFK Sanctuary, and their take-off startled the roosting night-herons into the air. A Peregrine appeared and repeatedly stooped into the fray, making me feel even worse about my accidental disturbance, but it missed its mark on all attempts. The waterfowl eventually settled out of sight, and the falcon continued on to try its luck elsewhere.

These lazy, easygoing fall weekends are a real treat during the early portion of the school year. The cycle of migration marks the passage of time even as the work weeks begin to blur together. Taking the time to get out and explore my local patches helps to keep me refreshed and sharp so I’m prepared to do my best for my students and coworkers. Free time well-spent is a valuable thing, in my opinion, at least!

Year List Update, October 15 – 396 Species (+ Nelson’s Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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