Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, August 3, 2019

It Ain't Over till It's Over

Le Conte's Sparrow

A few days ago, I was lamenting that my hearing loss is now making it impossible for me to hear LeConte’s Sparrows in the field without a lot of technology. It felt like I was never going to be able to see one of my favorite birds on the planet ever again. 

But Friday I went back to my mother-in-law’s old place on Kinney Valley Road in Port Wing, this time with my friend Paula and my trusty Bird Finder headphones that lower the frequency of the highest-pitched bird songs and calls. With their help, I easily found the sparrows, and took photos and made more sound recordings.

I arrived at 5:30 and played a recording, and immediately a family unit of at least four birds came right up to the shrubby area alongside the dirt road—that’s where I got most of my pictures. The sun was mostly behind them, but at close range, the birds weren’t too badly backlit.

Le Conte's Sparrow
This bird, which I think is a juvenile, was making chipping notes, not singing. 
Le Conte's Sparrow

They were mostly in among branches and leaves, so focusing was a bit of a challenge, but that’s the reason I take so many photos—some of them usually turn out. Many of my photos must have been of young birds—they no longer showed any trace of the gape that characterizes baby birds, but had fresh tail feathers (by now, I think the adults’ must be quite worn) and they had lots of delicate streaking on the breast and supercilium, or eyebrow. But I’ve not had any experience photographing LeConte’s Sparrows in August before, so without a baby bird’s gape mark, I’m not 100 percent certain about the age of any of the birds I photographed. I'm making guesses about age, and that almost all my photos are of young birds, but won't mind if any experienced banders tell me I've got it wrong. 

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow
I THINK this is the only adult I photographed yesterday, based on the worn tail, broad back streaking, lack of tiny streaking on the eyebrow, and delicate purplish markings on the nape. 
The mosquitoes on Kinney Valley Road were horrible for the first hour or so—they drove Paula back into her car before I arrived. I did have to pull up the hood on my sweatshirt, but the sparrows kept me so engaged that I didn’t feel any bites until I got home later.

At one point, one sparrow landed on the gravel road—I wasn’t quick enough to get its photo before it disappeared into the very lowest branches of a spruce tree on the far side. A second sparrow was over on that forested side of the road, too. I could see movement as they worked their way up the tree for a bit, but the only photos I got, with the sun full on one bird, were overexposed with glare light.

We stayed on Kinney Valley Road until 7 am, getting photos and recordings of the LeConte’s and a Sedge Wren, until the sun was high enough to be heating things up and the birds were losing interest in singing and staying by the road—they all seemed to gravitate to the more distant, entirely grassy areas of the field. 

I’ve never felt comfortable walking into that field—I’m petrified of damaging plants to begin with, and am absolutely horrified by even a possibility of unknowingly stepping on a nest. This being August, I’m presuming no females are on eggs, but it’s hard to break old habits, and I hate the idea of crushing plants, disrupting butterfly chrysalises, or unknowingly doing other damage to the natural creatures who belong in that field anyway.  Somehow the road itself seems to be the domain of humans, while the field belongs to birds and other natural creatures. If they come to the edge where I can see them, that seems fair, but it feels wrong to crash into land that belongs to them, not me.

That’s why as much as I’d love to do a solid study of LeConte’s Sparrow’s natural history, I never will get close to finding a nest—I’ll leave that to others. Meanwhile, my despairing about my ability to interact with this wonderful bird was premature. Yes, I’ll never be able to hear its whispered hiss of a song except at extremely close range, but I am still able to see and enjoy this tiny jewel of a bird.

Le Conte's Sparrow

I like goals, and so right now I’m planning to make 2020 "Laura's Year of LeConte’s Sparrow." I'll spend time in Port Wing every month from late April through August or September, and try to get down to Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas each of the other months. My despair of just a few days ago has been replaced with hope and good cheer, and concrete planning. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Le Conte's Sparrow
I digiscoped this adult male LeConte's Sparrow (he was singing part of the time)
in that same field on 15 June 2005.