Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do Henslow's Sparrows really exist in New York?

I saw my life Henslow's Sparrow in Pennsylvania in 1992.  Relatively newly arrived in the US, my friend Jim Shoemaker invited me out to get a my life bird at a breeding site that he knew near his childhood home near Wilkes-Barre.  We went out, arrived at the site at dawn, and quickly had great scope views of the birds singing while sitting up in the grass.  I saw a few more birds a little later that Spring.  Not so tough really, not sure what the big deal is .....

Fast forward 20-years and come the Spring of 2012, I hadn't seen another one since.  So I knew I'd have to do some work if I wanted one for my New York year list.   To cut a long story short, I put in some miles and some hours and I've had 5 Henslow's "experiences" so far this year.  Today I officially declared victory and stopped trying to get better views.  Henslow's turns out to be the most mercurial and frustrating of birds.  Perhaps that first day was a fluke after all.

May 22nd - Triangle Road: late in the day with Joan Collins and Richard Fried.  Joan can hear Henslow's Sparrows and now Richard can hear them too.  I can't hear them.  Or can I?  What does a grasshopper fart sound like?  Are they similar?  Eventually I get on what the others are hearing and it does sound good, but I'd really like a look at a bird.  We spend a fair amount of time there but we don't see any birds, and even though I'm more comfortable with the calls, I pronounce the whole thing a most unsatisfying experience and head back to the mountains to get back to the serious business of not seeing Spruce Grouse.

June 2nd - Dog Hill Road: with Benjamin Van Doren.   We get to the Perch River site mid-morning and we don't hear any Henslow's Sparrows, despite others having reported them recently.  I know that Benjamin has been skeptical about the Triangle Road site but agree to run up there anyway.  We get there mid day and we don't hear any Henslow's Sparrows there either.  Benjamin says the habitat looks wrong and can barely contain his skepticism.  Henslow's Sparrow would be a life bird for him.  I think they're punishing his lack of faith and sitting tight-lipped just out of view.

June 12th - Dog Hill Road: an impromptu side-trip on the way from Rochester to NYC (it's only an hour or two out of the way, each way) inspired by Chris Wood's recent Gray Partridge sighting.  It has been raining all morning and by the time I get to Perch River it really doesn't look like its going to be letting up any time soon.  When I pull into the Gray Partridge site (which is also the Henslow's site) I have low expectations, but even though its raining, there's a Henslow's Sparrow singing in the field.  I listen for a while, get out of the car, get soaked, get back in the car, and decide to call it a day and head South.  The rain is now torrential and the six-hour drive South is miserable.

July 10th - Dog Hill Road: it's dusk and I'm cruising slowly along the road hoping for Chris Wood's famous Gray Partridge (famous in my imagination at least).  As I pull into the small parking lot I'm surprised to hear a Henslow's Sparrow calling loudly and close to the road.  I get out and listen, perhaps a second one calling too, and then flight views and a brief perched view.  How very cooperative!  With the light fading though, the camera stays in the car and I resign myself to a 4am alarm call, hoping that they'll be sitting up and singing early in the morning.

July 11th - Dog Hill Road:  fortified by Ramada Inn instant coffee, I head out early and get to Perch River at around 5am.  As I pull up to the site with the windows open, I can hear Henslow's Sparrows singing from the car.  I jump out, walk over the edge of the grass closest to the nearest of two singing birds, and turn on the camera.  After a lot of squinting, many mosquito bites, and a few position changes, I spot the bird, point the camera, and take about 100 completely out-of-focus shots!  In the low light my auto-focus just can't distinguish the small brown streaky sparrow from the large brown streaky field of grass.  But as the light improves, the camera gets a bit smarter and I manage to get the all important "proof" shot (below).

Henslow's Sparrow
So the last two days, the birds were positively easy - sitting out in the open (ish), singing loudly, and hanging out close to the road.  On other visits to the same site, there was not even a hint of the birds.  Perhaps the low light (dusk, dawn, heavy rain) helps a lot, or perhaps the bird is just mercurial.  Either way, I'm sure they're under-recorded, and that there are more out there to be found.  I do have to admit though that I've actually grown quite fond of them during this whole process.

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