Nelson’s Sparrow – Clinton County, PA

Alex LamoreauxBirding, Rarities7 Comments

Yellow-rumped Warbler at BESP (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Yellow-rumped Warbler at BESP (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

This afternoon, I drove out to Bald Eagle SP to do some birding after the storms had moved through the region. A few groups of Ruddy Ducks, 4 Ring-necked Ducks, 6 Double-crested Cormorants, and 2 Common Loons were the only waterfowl I could find on the lake, but many areas I stopped at had lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers and various sparrows fluttering around. I planned to then head west towards Curtin Wetlands and Julian Wetlands to look for a Nelson’s Sparrow….a species I have been trying really hard to find in Centre County this year. However, since I was at the very east end of the state park I decided to jump over into Clinton County and check out Mill Hall Wetlands quickly.

Rusty Blackbird - female (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Rusty Blackbird – female (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Once I got to Mill Hall (checklist), it was clear that there was a lot of bird activity around the three ponds. Multiple species of sparrows (although mostly Swamp) were climbing around through all the brush, as well as Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and both subspecies of Palm Warblers. I was also able to find a few late warblers, including 1 Magnolia and 1 Nashville. A somewhat cooperative flock of 20 Rusty Blackbirds were foraging in a hedgerow along the north pond, so I quickly sat down in the brush hoping they could come close. After a while, one curious female Rusty made her way over near me but never gave me a chance for a photo of her without a branch or two in the way.

Once I had made my way around to the southeast side of the north pond, I climbed up onto the dike and almost immediately a sparrow flushed up onto some cattails. The bird’s orange and blue head immediately gave it away as a Nelson’s, and I swung my camera up to grab a photo. A few seconds later the sparrow dropped down and out of view. I sent out a quick text alert to the SCRBA and then tried to re-find the bird for better photos.

My first view of the Nelson's Sparrow (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

My first view of the Nelson’s Sparrow (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

I crept in closer and was able to quickly find the bird again, as it slowly foraged through the vegetation at the edge of the pond. For the next 3 minutes or so, I worked hard to get clear angles on the bird for a mostly un-obscured photo but it was difficult as the bird was so active. Luckily, the bright orange color on the bird’s head made it somewhat easy to keep track of as it moved around. The bird seemed to completely ignore that I was within 10 feet of it! A great way to get a new state bird!…#310 for me!

Nelson’s Sparrows are rarely-found migrants through Pennsylvania, with specific habitat requirements and secretive habits. This bird that I found actually represents the first record for Clinton County, and one of only a handful of records for central Pennsylvania. The Nelson’s Sparrow, specifically the ‘interior’ subspecies, nests in the central plains states and then migrates to the east coast’s saltmarshes for the winter. During migration, they search for marshy areas especially wetlands and wet fields with tall, weedy vegetation. The ‘interior’ subspecies can be told from the ‘Atlantic’ subspecies by the double white stripes running down the bird’s back, the rich orange facial markings, as well as the more defined streaks on its breast. Nelson’s Sparrows in general can be separated from the similar (and previously conspecific) Saltmarsh Sparrow by their buffy-orange breasts and thicker breast streaks although Saltmarsh Sparrow is much more uncommon in the state. The traditional spot for finding Nelson’s Sparrows in Pennsylvania is at the Bainbridge Islands on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. Just recently, Mike Epler and a few other birders found a whopping 9 Nelson’s there!