Sparrow Obsession

a guest bloggerBird Finding Tips, Bird Sightings, Birding, Featured1 Comment

Guest contributor Matt Sabatine is back with some information on his recent Nelson’s Sparrow obsession, as well as tips on where to look for them during fall migration in Pennsylvania. Enjoy!

 

Nelson's Sparrow (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Nelson’s Sparrow (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

What began as a halfhearted attempt at finding a Nelson’s Sparrow for the fall soon turned into a temporary obsession. On the morning of October 11th, I rolled out of bed several hours after I’d planned to and made my way to the Frog Pond at Bald Eagle State Park, where I was able to find two Nelson’s Sparrows – a first for the park, and one of only a handful of records for the county. I next visited the Mill Hall Wetlands in nearby Clinton County, again coming across a Nelson’s Sparrow that was confiding enough for me to take photos with my iPhone through my binocular lens. Essentially all of my birding efforts since then have focused around finding Nelson’s Sparrows in the region. I have searched specifically for them on 5 different days from 10/11 to 10/21, and have seen at least one Nelson’s during each try. In total, I saw between 9 and 10 different Nelson’s Sparrows (one may have been an overlap, though it’s unlikely). They spanned 4 different locations over 3 counties, with the breakdown as follows:

2 Nelson’s Sparrows– 10/11, Frog Pond, Bald Eagle SP, Centre County
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/11, Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/12, Frog Pond, Bald Eagle SP, Centre County (different individual from 10/11)
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/18, Old Crow Wetland, Huntingdon County
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/19, Curtin Wetland, Centre County
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/19, Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County
1 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/21, Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County (different individual from 10/19)
2 Nelson’s Sparrow– 10/21, Curtin Wetlands, Centre County (one of these may have been seen on 10/19)
I’ve gotten pretty lucky this fall with a species that is typically rarely reported in Pennsylvania away from the Bainbridge Islands in Lancaster County, in addition to a few other locally reliable locations in southeastern PA. However, I think with a bit of luck and perseverance, they can be found just about every October if there’s suitable habitat around. Below are a few tips on how to find Nelson’s Sparrows near you!

Finding Nelson’s Sparrows in Pennsylvania

Prime Nelson's Sparrow habitat: large expanses of cattails and other marsh vegetation lining a large pond. Mill Hall Wetlands, 10/21/14 (Photo by Matt Sabatine)

Prime Nelson’s Sparrow habitat: large expanses of cattails and other marsh vegetation lining a large pond. Mill Hall Wetlands, 10/21/14 (Photo by Matt Sabatine)

Nelson’s Sparrows are seen in Pennsylvania almost exclusively during the month of October, with the middle two weeks probably representing their peak migration period through the state. They seem to be especially partial to cattail marshes, particularly tall and healthy ones interspersed with shorter, dead cattails. Additionally, one of the Nelson’s I had this year (10/12 at the Frog Pond) popped up out of a wet, matted down patch of barnyard grass next to cattails, so they aren’t specific to cattail marshes alone. They also seem to really like the cattails and marsh vegetation at the immediate edge of legitimate bodies of water, i.e. ponds, lakes, reservoirs, etc. As such, I find the best method for finding them to be slowly walking the edges of ponds lined with cattails, and stopping to pish occasionally when there is activity (which is usually Swamp Sparrows making a ruckus or flushing away). Several times this fall, Nelson’s Sparrows have popped right up, clearly responsive to pishing. They are Ammodramus sparrows, though, and as such they can also be incredibly sneaky and shy. In this case, it’s good to be familiar with their field marks if only catching a glimpse of a bird fleeing away. They usually have dull grayish backs with vertical white stripes going down the middle (though color can vary), and often exhibit short, weak flights, descending low into marshy areas not too far from where they flush from. As is common knowledge when searching for passerines, wind can be a major factor, and needless to say, the calmer and warmer out it is, the more active and visible the birds will be. It’s also probably worth a mention that discretion should be used when birding these habitats–repeatedly flushing sensitive marsh birds can cause them undue stress, forcing them to expend energy they otherwise wouldn’t have to, and potentially exposing them to predators that ordinarily wouldn’t see them. At no point this fall have I had to repeatedly flush Nelson’s Sparrows to get good looks at them, so with a little bit of patience and putting yourself in the right spots, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding them. Happy Searching!

Additional Nelson’s Sparrow resources from NemesisBird.com:
Nelson’s Sparrow banding at Colyer Lake, Centre County, PA (lots of up-close photos!)
Nelson’s Sparrow photo study from Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County, PA
Nelson's Sparrow from 2013 at Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Nelson’s Sparrow from the fall 2013 season at Mill Hall Wetlands, Clinton County, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

  • Joe Verica

    Nice article! I ran into a few Amish birders at Colyer last week. They told me that had NESP at Muddy Paws Marsh last year. That is also a good spot for Marsh Wrens as well.