The Final LeConte-down: Eking out a Victory over a Nemesis

Tim HealyBird Sightings, Birding, Chase, eBird, Listing, RaritiesLeave a Comment

When Drew first established this blog so many years ago, he christened the new site with a title based on one of the most evocatively named phenomena in birding. The concept of a nemesis bird is something most birders are familiar with, though the exact definition may vary from person to person. It could be that incredible vagrant you “just missed” when all of your friends were treated to spectacular views. A common species in your area that you inexplicably can’t seem to connect with might qualify. Perhaps you were out of town when your nemesis came to visit, or maybe you traveled far from home to search for it and came up short. Nemesis birds are often would-be lifers, but it’s possible to have a state nemesis, a county nemesis, or even a patch nemesis. Whatever the case, you have certainly put in the effort and the bird has simply refused to cooperate. Now it’s personal, and you won’t rest until you’ve laid eyes on your troublesome foe.

I’ve had plenty of nemeses over the course of my birding career. My quest to find my favorite bird, the Snowy Owl, took me several winters back when I was in middle school. Rose-breasted Grosbeak gave me the runaround for a shockingly long time, but I finally broke the seal with a sighting on my college campus. I experienced several painful dips for Upland Sandpiper prior to my life encounter in April 2016, and the mantle of primary nemesis was quickly taken up by Little Gull, which was vanquished in July 2017. I subsequently found myself without an obvious official nemesis for some time. These rivalries sneak up on you, developing gradually over the course of multiple missed opportunities. Eventually, a suitably challenging opponent rose up to claim the title: LeConte’s Sparrow.

The saga of my search for Ammospiza leconteii began when I returned home to Long Island after graduation. An unusually cooperative bird at Floyd Bennett Field in late 2014 was one of the first notable vagrants that I missed after signing up for the local New York rarity alerts. I intentionally looked for wintering individuals at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge on the final day of my February 2016 Texas trip, leaving with nothing more than a fleeting view of an unidentified sparrow that crossed the trail. In October 2017, I logged 8 hours at a stakeout in Connecticut waiting for a no-show LeConte’s, only for one to turn up in the Bronx the following weekend while I was away chasing a Common Greenshank in New Jersey. Though there were several other failures over the years, 2020 truly pushed the species into top nemesis territory. When a report came in from Jamaica Bay in late September, I made a drop-everything, post-work chase across Queens via bus only to arrive too late. Sightings at Croton Point Park and Staten Island in late December provided many other birders with great views, but I was kept away by conflicting CBCs, holiday obligations, and limited vehicle access. At the start of 2021, there was no doubt in my mind that this secretive creature had earned its spot as my primary nemesis bird.

When February break arrived, I found myself with the coveted combination of free time to burn and a family car available to borrow. This permitted me to explore beyond the limitations of the MTA and search for birds along the South Shore. On Wednesday, I made my third attempt for the rare Spotted Towhee discovered at Baldwin Harbor Park during the Southern Nassau CBC. The bird had been consistently inconsistent for over a month, but recent increased snow cover had pushed it to spend more time foraging at the edges of the path through its favored thicket. Though it remained skittish and could still keep hopeful twitchers waiting for hours, I decided it was worth taking one last shot. I arrived on site just after midday, and I eventually caught a glimpse of the elusive vagrant as it flushed into the trailside tangles, showing off its bold white tail corners, gray-brown upperparts, and pale-patterned wings and back. After securing this new state bird, I made my way to the coast, where I connected with a nesting Great Horned Owl, a flock of shorebirds, larks, and waterfowl feeding on a flooded field, and a trio of confiding Harlequin Ducks.

While I was out in the field on Wednesday afternoon, I received a rarity alert from Doug Gochfeld, who had located a LeConte’s Sparrow in the dunes at Breezy Point. His initial report warned that this particular individual was especially skulky, even by the characteristically stealthy standards of the species. It had taken him more than an hour of determined effort to confirm the bird’s identity and obtain diagnostic photos. Breezy Point was already on my short list of possible destinations for Thursday, since I haven’t had much opportunity in the past to bird the outer beaches of Queens during winter. In addition to this highly desirable target, there was potential to pick up some bonus county birds as well. I set an early alarm to prepare for the hunt, hoping that I would finally be able to vanquish my long-standing nemesis.

On the morning of February 17th, I was the first birder on the scene at Breezy Point, reaching the parking lot just after sunrise. I made my way down the sandy 4×4 path to the beach, navigating around slick patches of ice and expansive puddles along the way. Corey arrived soon after I made it to the end of the trail, accompanied by fellow Queens birder Meryl, and the three of us set about trying to track down our quarry. It was a particularly blustery day at this aptly named peninsula, which kept most of the birds low to the ground and close to cover. I was grateful for the company on this chase, since the presence of additional searchers allowed us to cover more ground and also made it less likely for a bird to scurry away through the grass unseen. We kicked up a number of Savannah Sparrows as we began exploring the area, with at least one “typical” bird and many more of the larger, paler “Ipswich” subspecies that is common along the coast at this time of year.

Working our way west down the shoreline, Corey and I briefly paused our transect to chat while Meryl was catching up to our position. As soon as we started walking again, I heard Corey call out in surprise. I turned towards him to see a small, stubby sparrow fluttering past me, making a beeline for the dense bayberry scrub further back in the dunes. I got a good profile view of the bird as it went by, and it was clearly more compact and short-tailed than the Savannah and Song Sparrows we’d already scared up. Its most striking feature was the bright, buffy yellow plumage of its face, breast, and flanks, which made it look like a little, winged nugget of gold. I knew that LeConte’s Sparrows are fairly colorful compared to most of their brownish cousins, but having never seen one in life I was caught off-guard by how conspicuously vibrant it was. The bird dropped into the tangled vegetation and quickly disappeared. Corey commented that it had flushed mere feet from where he stood, waiting until the last minute before weakly taking flight and heading for cover. He confirmed a few of the features I had seen, including its streaked back and squat form, but due to his fleeting, rear-only view he hadn’t personally gotten a satisfying sense of overall color or other field marks. We waited to see if our target would emerge again, but it remained hidden out of sight.

We elected to give the sparrow a bit of a break, heading over to the inlet to see what else we could find. There were several Great Cormorants perched in their usual spot at the end of the jetty, and a variety of ducks were observed floating just offshore. The recently reported Red Knots were absent from the loafing flock of Sanderling and Dunlin, but some flyby Purple Sandpipers were a welcome addition to my Queens County total. I also finally added Surf and Black Scoters to my 2021 list, much later than usual due to my limited seawatching opportunities thus far this year. When we returned to the scene of our earlier LeConte’s encounter, Corey thought he caught another glimpse of it in the same vicinity where it had initially flushed. He played a tape of the bird’s calls, and we immediately heard an identical response emanating from the grass: a short series of high-pitched, sharp chips. Though we watched and listened closely to see if we could pinpoint the location of our quarry, it fell silent after these vocalizations and refused to show itself again.

Corey couldn’t bring himself to count the bird for his Queens year list with the subpar glimpse that he’d gotten, and he eventually ran out of time to keep trying for a more satisfying look. That being said, he has already enjoyed the distinct honor of adding this species as a self-found lifer in his home county in the past, so I reckon that probably helped lessen his frustration at this disobliging individual. Meryl likewise had to depart before noon, and I thanked the two of them for the assistance and conversation before they started back towards the parking lot. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I couldn’t have done this with out them, since I wouldn’t have gotten an identifiable view of the bird if Corey hadn’t inadvertently flushed it directly past me. I stayed out at the beach for the remainder of the day, hoping for additional observations and a chance to secure some documentation photos of my latest lifer. Spending 8 hours waiting on my nemesis was an all-too-familiar feeling, but at least this time I had already scored a sighting. Though I did not see or hear the LeConte’s Sparrow again, I was plenty pleased with a pair of Snow Buntings that came flying overhead, an overdue year bird and a first for my Queens list.

I overlapped towards the end of my vigil with Rob Bate, who also reported a tantalizing peripheral vision peek at a suspiciously golden sparrow that dove into the brush just east of where we’d found the bird in the morning. We spent a bit of time cooperatively scanning that area as well, but in the end I had to settle for the quick flight views and vocalizations from the grass as my definitive lifer experience. Though it was a hard-won battle and a small-scale victory, I was nevertheless happy to finally conquer my long-standing nemesis bird. The addition of this species brings my global life list to 1,224, and it joins Purple Sandpiper and Snow Bunting on my Queens County total of 248. The theme of the week was definitely “uncooperative rare sparrows,” and the back-to-back towhee and LeConte’s sightings mean that my New York State list now stands at 376. I’m happy that 2021 provided a new bird much quicker than 2020 did, and I look forward to seeing what the coming months have to offer! I’m sure some new nemesis will make itself known before too long!