I and the Bird

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Henslow's and Grasshopper Sparrows in Maryland

I woke up early (for me) this morning and headed down to Huntley Meadows to see if the Wilson's Phalarope that was reported there yesterday was still around. I had debated whether or not to go down yesterday, but I was lazy and just went across the river and looked at a windy, empty Kenilworth Park. Bad decision. The phalarope was gone and I was an idiot.

There were a few good birds...a handful of green herons, great egrets, dunlin and acadian flycatchers, but I was upset with myself for missing a good bird on account of laziness. I must redeem myself! I thought of Steve Sanford's post from Friday about Henslow's and Grasshopper Sparrows in western Maryland. It was at least a 3 hour drive each way. And gas is 3 dollars a gallon and I'm an intern. Screw it. Redemption!

The beautiful Virginia/WVirginia/Maryland countryside made the drive go by quickly, and I was soon cruising through the lovely town of Cumberland, MD and sliding off exit 33. Using Mr. Sanford's directions I easily found my way to the top of a grassy hill and started down the jeep trail (ignoring, cautiously, the NO TRESSPASSING signs, as per Mr. Sanford's advice). Immediately I could hear the metallic clinks of Grasshopper Sparrows on either side of me. Although they sounded like they were chirping right under my feet I couldn't seem them in the knee-high grass. After a couple minutes with no sightings, I started down to the flat meadow to look for Henslow's.

A little background, when I worked for the NY DEC this past summer there was talk that I might be able to go help out with a Henslow's project in one of the state forests that had a meadow. This particular state forest (I can't remember the name) wanted to get an accurate count of Henslow's to help dictate their conservation policy. Anyway, I did a bunch of research and got myself all physched up to find Henslow's, but the project never materialized. Since then seeing a Henslow's has been at the top of my wish list.

At the bottom of the hill and after taking a right into another jeep trail I was rewarded almost immediately with the quick chirp of the Henslow's Sparrow. I had listened to Peterson CD's on the way up and the noise coming from the grass at my feet was identical to the cd track. Perfect. Only problem was that, like the grasshoppers, these birds were staying in the tall grass. I waited around for about 20 minutes before I finally got a glimpse of a dark sparrow through the reeds. Through the binoculars there was no question that it was a Henslow's: big, flat head, thin breast streaks, yellow on the side of the face. I looked for a few moments, but when I looked away to try to move closer and get my camera the bird was gone. Still, I was happy.

I waited for another 20 minutes but the sparrows didn't show themselves or make a sounds. No worries. Already satisfied, I walked up back up the hill and into a pack of suddenly active Grasshopper Sparrows. There were three chasing each other around and perching on shrubs and in the path. I got a few pictures before the rain started. After a couple of misses lately (red knots and 2 wilson's phalarope attempts), it was great to find the birds I was looking for. The drive back to DC went by much quicker.

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