Linnaean Society Sparrow WorkshopBy
Almost yearly the Linnaean Society of New York held seminars devoted to the field identification of … Sharp-tail[ed Sparrows] so that its members could add them to their lists. — Roger Tory Peterson, 1947
Proud carriers on of a long tradition, ten of us assembled early this morning at Sandy Hook, that hottest of October sparrow hotspots.
I meekly accept the blame for failing to notify the sparrows in advance.
Not that it was a bad day, not at all. But you know things aren’t quite right when just half an hour into a trip you start to find yourself muttering about “quality, not quantity” and pointing out the places where good birds have been — in the past — the fairly distant past….
The problem was the weather. It was far too nice for sparrows, bright and calm and warm. The many migrants still present Thursday morning had managed to push on south Thursday night, before the winds shifted to the southwest and rain started early Friday morning. Last night’s winds still had a strong southerly component, meaning essentially that nothing flew in to replace the lucky birds that had got out the night before.
It didn’t help, either, that our first stop, the salt marsh across from Lot B, my sure-fire spot for Nelson’s Sparrow this time of year, was the chosen breakfast venue of a lovely female Merlin. Unsurprisingly, even the few Song and White-throated Sparrows there were sticking to cover, forcing the poor hungry falcon to chase Red-winged Blackbirds and harass American Crows, which along with the abundant Myrtle Warblers were about the only birds we human birders could find, too.
No towhees? No Palm Warblers? Definitely time to cut our losses. We drove straight to the famous K Lot, a place I’ve spent many hours over the years simply leaning on the rail fence as sparrow after sparrow after sparrow flock dropped in to be admired.
It was warm, it was bright, it was stunningly beautiful, it was birdless. The dirt road from K to the fenced dump has provided some of the most exciting birding of my life over the years, but our walk in was nearly uninterrupted by the avian. A single Field Sparrow popped up to give us a lesson in Spizella tail length, followed by a couple of Song Sparrows to instruct us in Melospiza tubbiness.
On our disappointed way back to the parking lot, another Spizella caught my eye–a Clay-colored Sparrow, one of the Hook’s regular autumn specialties. Everyone got a decent look before the bird flew over our heads and landed briefly in the sun before taking off again towards the parking lot. We followed, and found the bird feeding in the tall grass just a few feet away, below eye level and in perfect light, with what turned out to be the day’s only (!!) Swamp Sparrow.
We gazed our fill, then walked to the old Proving Ground, usually one of the best sites for sparrows at the Hook. Nothin’. Nothing, that is, until a Clay-colored Sparrow emerged from the grasses to perch and give us scope views. Two in a day is good for New Jersey, even for Sandy Hook. And three is even better, as we discovered on returning to K Lot and finding (presumably) our original clay-color keeping company with another, bathing in a puddle and feeding, tame, in the grasses.
The day was clearly salvaged, but otherwise we still weren’t finding much more than sparrow dribs and sparrow drabs. A first-cycle White-crowned Sparrow gave two of us a fleeting look, and a single Slate-colored Junco flew calling over our heads, but it looked like lunch was the better part of valor.
The picnic pavilion at North Beach looks down on a long, gentle grassy slope, prime habitat for migrant sparrows; but predictably, not today. Happily, a post-prandial restroom stop was occasion for two first-cycle White-crowned Sparrows to perch high in a cedar, finally giving us all good views of what should have been, in the last days of October, an easy, common, and conspicuous bird.
We were all satisfied with the outstanding views we’d enjoyed of Clay-colored Sparrows, so we decided to spend the rest of our outing on the inside, birding the area from the scout camp back north to the old sewage plant. Our route was uncluttered by sparrows, but we added a few birds to the day list, among them Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper, common fall birds that we should have been seeing all day.
But you know what? When we parted in the late afternoon, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed. I’d had a beautiful day out in thoroughly enjoyable company, and I’d even seen a few sparrows. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to complain when you’re a birder in October.