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:
Finding Nelson’s Sparrows in Pennsylvania
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!