On Friday, Alex, Josh and I traveled to the southeastern side of the state to see a few rare PA birds that would be new state birds for all of us. On our list were Saltmarsh Sparrow, Calliope Hummingbird, and Black Skimmer, among other things. We left State College in the dark and while Alex drove, I took a long nap in the back seat. Before I knew it we were at Pine Run Reservoir in Bucks County, where a Saltmarsh Sparrow had been found a few days before by Cameron Rutt and August Mirabella on November 1st. This is only the fourth record of this species in Pennsylvania, making this yet another good thing to come out of Hurricane Sandy.
The reservoir was relatively small, and was bordered on one side by a woodlot. On the other side was a large field of goldenrod, young willow, and various tall grass and shrubs. When we arrived, there were already a handful of birders on site looking for the bird. With so many people, we decided to do a modified “sparrow drive” – we lined-up and walked the field lengthwise to flush any sparrow present in one general direction. We saw a number of Song, Savannah, and Swamp Sparrows in addition to a female Common Yellowthroat. We even flushed a Sora! But there was no sign of the Saltmarsh Sparrow. We swept the field twice, but still nothing.
Shannon Thompson suggested we focus on the edge of the field near the lake, but we came to our stopping point (where the bird had originally been sighted) and there was still no sign of the bird. At this point, most everyone had given up, as this had turned into at least a two hour event, and there were other rarities to chase. As I was thinking about giving up myself, I noticed a sparrow sitting on top of a young willow, in plain view, oblivious to the group of dejected birders nearby. I put up my binoculars, thinking this would be a Savannah Sparrow. To my complete surprise, I saw the unmistakable orange facial markings of the Saltmarsh Sparrow! At least a few seconds went by while I tried to comprehend that I was starting at the target bird, and relayed the info to everyone else. Dave Wilton spotted the bird as it darted low into the grass, and confirmed the ID…this was THE BIRD! We all quickly surrounded the bird, not wanting it to sneak away. Some sparrows can be surprisingly mouse-like, crawling and running low through blades of grass instead of flying. Of course, somehow it found its way out of the human circle, and we spotted it nearby. We again made the line, and were able to push it to the shoreline. While Alex waded out into the reservoir, I walked the shoreline leading up to where we suspected it was so it couldn’t escape again. Alex spotted the bird at the shoreline but it was down over a lip of the bank and out of view for everyone else. Eventually it jumped into view for the hard-working PA birders to see! We got a few more good looks at it, but were continually amazed at how easily it would sneak out of our lines and circles, undetected and right under our feet. Ironically, the best look I got of the bird was the moment I first spotted it. Here is our full eBird checklist for Pine Run Reservoir. For more photos of this sparrow, check out this link to Cameron Rutt’s Flickr.