Monday, March 17, 2014

Le Conte's Sparrow in the snow

Having got everyone all fired up and ready for Cape May SpringWatch, the sight of nearly eight inches of snow piled up on the roof of my car this morning was a heart-sinking start to the day. Clearly this was not going to be a day of exciting spring arrivals at the point, this being further borne out by a phone call from Mike Hannisian, telling me that Wilson's Snipe were poking around on the road edges - no doubt desperately seaking places to feed now that the marshes are yet again covered in snow.

Under such conditions, it seems best to get on with indoor chores; put on some music, kick back and see what comes to the feeders (a nice Brown Thrasher and at least three Fox Sparrows as it happens!). So today's award for sticking it out through good times and bad goes to Tom Johnson, Glen Davis and Sam Galick who - for some extraordinary reason best known to themselves - chose to make the trudge down Stone Harbor Point today. Sam was way down at the end when Tom and Glen discovered a Le Conte's Sparrow, lurking not far from the very spot that had been home to the Smith's Longspur that has been wintering with us. Today was not a day to be hurrying on the roads, but some of us did make it to Stone Harbor to get a look at this bird before it lost itself in the labyrinth of grass stems again.

Le Conte's Sparrow is one of the Ammodramus sparrows, a genus of birds that seem to behave more like two-legged mice than birds much of the time. They can and do have a habit of running on the ground in thick cover and popping up well away from the point that you saw them dive in, so refinding one once it has been lost can be tricky; getting a good enough look to identify one to species can be tricky too. Typically, one of these small sparrows in Cape May's coastal dunes and marshes is far more likely to be a Nelson's or a Saltmarsh Sparrow, so those two species need to be ruled out. Le Conte's Sparrow breeds in the prairie grasslands of Canada and in the north-central USA (eastern North Dakota to Michigan) and winters mostly in the Gulf states, from Texas to South Carolina, so is never to be expected in winter in New Jersey, but there have been other recent records at this time of year and it seems likely that such birds will have arrived here the previous autumn and have spent the winter in our region.

Settling briefly on a snow-covered piece of driftwood, today's Le Conte's Sparrow gave us just a few seconds to snatch some hurried shots in difficult conditions. The overall appearance is very much like a Nelson's Sparrow, but here notice the lack of a gray wash on the nape and much stronger, darker and more sharply defined flank streaks. The whitish edges to the tertials are much harder to see at this time of year, when the edges will have worn down over the winter period [photo by Mike Crewe].

If you get lucky and the bird turns to look at you, you should catch a glimpse of the pale central crown stripe - Nelson's is gray in this area. Seeing a Le Conte's Sparrow in the snow is certainly not an everyday experience! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

A close up of today's snow; interesting climatic conditions must have been in play to produce the splinters of ice that made up today's snow and made it look like a thick coating of glass fiber had descended on us [photo by Mike Crewe].