Saturday, October 13, 2007

Grassland Gems

Our first fall blast descended into Missouri this week, and avian friends that we haven’t seen since last spring returned to visit. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and others inhabited Lincoln's Sparrow by Marvin DeJong
the brushy edges of the Ozarks once again.
This day the winter residents and other migrants took second seat to two elusive migratory grassland sparrows, LeConte’s and Henslow’s. The Greater Ozarks Audubon Society’s annual quest took us to the hunter managed and dominated Bois D’Arc Conservation Area 20 miles northwest of Springfield.
I spend a lot of time birding by myself or with one other friend, but one’s odds of seeing these two species are greatly increased by the presence of a coordinated crowd of birders. Most of the birders attending today’s field trip were veterans of last year’s trip, when we had soul satisfying views of a LeConte’s and a Henslow’s, both in a single binocular view, begging for our careful observation and analysis of differences. The image lingered in our memories as we recalled our lucky day.
Because of their skulking nature and mouse-like running behavior (the sparrows, not the birders!), six observers is the minimum number needed to isolate and view LeConte’s and/or Henslow’s. The technique reminds me of childhood days of upland game hunting. We form a line and string out across the grasslands to cover more territory. These sparrows prefer the shorter areas of the prairie, those either burned or grazed to prevent the dense mesh created by the 6-8 feet tall bluestems, switch, and Indian grasses of the tall grass prairie. We flush our first LeConte’s of the day from the one to two foot high grasses. In flight it appears light gray and weak. It flies less than 50 feet. We surround the bird, closing in on it from all sides. We approach within 5 feet or less, the bird flushes and flies a shorter distance this time. We surround the bird again and again, until the bird has little additional energy to evade us. It is then that, as my birding friend Lisa said, “we can have our way with it”. The tiny, short tailed LeConte’s Sparrow perches on a stem less than 5 feet away from the entire group. Its orange face glows from amid the grasses. Purplish nape becomes visible to all. White medial stripe on top of head appears. Smiles all around for a mission accomplished.
Since I left my camera in the car, I ran ½ mile back to the car to get it. Shortly after I returned, the group closed in on another LeConte’s. Not as cooperative as the first bird, this one dove for the dense vegetation. Regardless, I snapped off a few pictures, one of which is on the left. The LeConte's is in the center of the picture, just to the left of the beige stem.
Later, the group split up as Charley and I bushwhacked through the dense thickets. Emerging from the thick vegetation, we flushed a dark bird out of the grasses. This bird flew less than 10 feet. We closed in without the help of our group this time. The bird flushed again as we noted its streakiness in addition to its dark back as it dove into the grasses. Even knowing exactly where the bird went down, however, we were unable to kick it out of the grasses this time. Almost certainly, however, we had a Henslow’s Sparrow.
Exploration of additional areas uncovered numerous White throated, White Crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrow, a few Field Sparrows, a Common Yellowthroat, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Nashville Warbler, and all the regulars. A Cooper’s Hawk soared overhead against the autumn sky to put the crown on a satisfying birding morning.