I took it pretty easy this past weekend. Friday night was full of relaxation and lounging, and I treated myself by sleeping in on Saturday. Edem and Kelsey met me in Brooklyn later in the day, and we had a chance to catch up over drinks and food. I managed to stay awake and alert throughout the evening, probably because I was no longer burning the candle at both ends. Before I turned in and headed to bed, I noted a listserv post about an extralimital rarity report. A LeConte’s Sparrow had been sighted and photographed at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford, Connecticut, not far from where Miriam works at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists. This secretive bird is rarely encountered in our region, so I figured chasing it was worth the effort.
There were plenty of other birders already in position when I arrived at about 9 AM. Unfortunately, no one had observed the bird since the previous evening. I settled in for a wait, hoping that the abundance of eager eyes and ears would make finding our target a matter of time. While we surveyed the site, there were plenty of other critters around to keep us entertained. I recorded a blend of forest-dwelling birds and shoreline species at this coastal location. Wild Turkeys joined large flocks of Mourning Doves at a nearby feeding station, and crowds of both crows were heard calling from the parking lot. A few flyovers spiced up the mix, including a lingering Osprey and squadrons of Monk Parakeets.
The assembled naturalists were generally friendly and conversational, which helped to pass the time as we watched for our quarry. At times, however, the chatter was a bit too loud for those of us listening for the bird’s quiet calls. Initially high spirits began to fade as midday approached, and the original finder commented that the sparrow had shown twice by noon the previous day. One by one, birders departed from the park until I was the only person left. Standing alone in the tall, swaying grass of the meadow, I found myself listening and looking much more intently. During my vigil, I was visited by a variety of creepy-crawlies. Common Buckeye, Fiery Skipper, and the continuing spectacle of Monarch migration were among the butterfly highlights. I was also kept company by a mantis that fluttered from stem to stem, searching for prey along the edge of the trail.
A cooperative little Nashville Warbler appeared on the scene once things quieted down in the early afternoon. This bird had been hanging around the area for the past few days, and the LeConte’s Sparrow was discovered during a photoshoot with this dawdling migrant. Some birders eventually returned to the sanctuary, both familiar faces from earlier and a handful of new arrivals. Most were happy to see the warbler, pausing to watch its antics as it foraged among the dry vegetation.
Several times throughout the day, I heard chip notes that sounded promising enough to get my attention. Most often the noises were heard when other sparrows flew into a patch of dense cover, seemingly disturbing another bird and prompting a response. LeConte’s Sparrows are notorious skulkers, often unwilling to show themselves unnecessarily. It’s possible that the wayward traveler was still present, lurking in the thickest part of the thicket, but I never managed to get a glimpse of the mystery voice’s source or even confirm the barely-heard calls as diagnostic. After nearly 8 hours standing post, I called it quits. I’d seen plenty of Song, Swamp, and Savannah Sparrows throughout the day, but the LeConte’s had defeated me. What’s more, I later found out that a Sabine’s Gull had been reported just down the trail from where I sat all day, but only one individual saw it and word didn’t get out in time. You can’t win ’em all! Despite these frustrating dips, I couldn’t complain about my time out in the field. I still had a restful, pleasant Sunday, and I wrapped up my adventure by heading over to Stamford proper to see Miriam and grab some Dinosaur BBQ for dinner. It doesn’t take much to keep me happy.
I now find myself in an interesting situation with the sneaky LeConte’s Sparrow. I’ve had a possible close call with this tricky target once in the past. On the final day of my February 2016 Texas trip, Col and I visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. We were on a tight schedule in order to make my flight home, and it certainly had an impact on the morning’s birding. In addition to missing the eponymous fowl that call the refuge home, we briefly spotted a stubby, pale sparrow that darted across the trail and dove into cover. It had the look of a LeConte’s or one of its close relatives, but we were short on time and failed to relocate the tantalizingly unidentifiable bird. Two missed connections, even with a failed stakeout of this length, is not quite enough to qualify as a capital letter Nemesis Bird just yet…but Ammodramus leconteii is certainly the most notable species gunning for that honor at the moment. For the time being, I will always remember this as the day I ALMOST caught Doctor LeConte’s Sparrow!
Year List Update, October 24 – 396 Species