Monday, October 26, 2009

Raining Sparrows

Saturday was another perfect example of "the worst weather bringing the best birds". While most "normal" people probably spent the day indoors, myself and other birders toiled in periodic rain showers with the hope of finding some interesting birds. For some of us, the effort paid off with big dividends.

In Prospect Park, despite gray, wet weather, several of us found what can only be described as an outrageous assortment of sparrows. I should point out that it wasn't just the unusual diversity, but also the relatively small area in which they were located. As I mentioned in a previous posting about the Lark Sparrow, a section of the Long Meadow near the baseball fields has been fenced off for reseeding. It is roughly a rectangular area 100 yards by 80 yards. Adjacent to that is a very small wildflower meadow. Large numbers of mostly Chipping, Savannah and Song Sparrows have been feeding in the fenced off area. When alarmed by hawks, helicopters or humans, they'd flush and mostly fly to the wildflower meadow or a pair of large Linden Trees at the edge of the field. At the wildflower meadow there have also been many Swamp, White-throated and one or two White-crowned Sparrows. About 200-300 yards to the north on the Long Meadow is a small area that the regular birders refer to as the "Sparrow Bowl". It was around that very restricted area of Prospect Park where a group of us spent a few hours searching and discovering some amazing birds.

It all began when my friend Peter texted me at around 10am that there was a Vesper Sparrow near the baseball fields. I rode over on my bike and got there fast. It didn't take very long to relocate the bird, which ultimately flew to the opposite side of the field (of course). I found it again, but when it began to rain, I put down my bins so I could pull up my hood. Naturally, the bird vanished. As Peter, another birding friend Mary and I scanned the grass field I stumbled on a Nelson's Sparrow whose head was barely poking up above the grass. Nelson's are not typically found in the middle of a grass meadow. They are marsh birds that spend most of their time in wetland habitats. Peter called our friend Steve to see if he could come over and take a photo. Steve got there quickly but stopped briefly at the wildflower meadow across the sidewalk from us. He promptly spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow, another NYC rarity. There was a birding group from the Audubon Nature Center passing by, so a lot of folks were lucky enough to see it. The rain then started coming down much harder so I left to go home and get some lunch. I had just finished eating when Mary called saying that she and Peter found a Saltmarsh Sparrow at the "Sparrow Bowl". Like the similar Nelson's Sparrow, this is another bird that is almost exclusively found within coastal wetlands. I hopped back on my bike, got to the park and was riding across the grass towards the Sparrow Bowl where I saw Peter and Mary walking away, back towards the baseball fields. They turned around and we quickly refound the sparrow where it was casually eating smartweed at the edge of the grass. I've seen this sparrow many times before, but it seemed extremely odd watching it in the middle of Prospect Park and not, for example, at Plum Beach. In all, we tallied a amazing 13 species of sparrow in Prospect Park. In keeping with the marsh theme (I suppose), there was also a Marsh Wren at the edge of Prospect Lake which I tracked down just prior to a deluge which sent me home for good.

On Sunday, Shane and I went to Staten Island before dawn to look for a Cackling Goose (another rarity). It was beautiful Autumn weather and I spent more time enjoying the landscape than scouring the habitats for birds. I guess I was still reveling in the previous day's discoveries and didn't feel compelled to pressure the birding Gods for more gifts. We did end the morning, however, after spending about 30 minutes studying a pair of very tiny "Canada" geese at Mt. Loretto.

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