Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Conspicuous Absence of Sparrows

What's wrong with this bird?

Look closely at the photo above: this is the infamous Harris' Sparrow that has been wintering in Gainesville, near the head of the La Chua Trail of Paynes Prairie State Park.

Look closer: what's that white line on its back? It's...the paper backing behind the photo (the nice contouring shadow is from me standing in front of it as the sun shone on me from behind). Some wise guy or gal (yet to be identified) pasted a life-size photo of Gainesville's only celebrity not named Tebow in the middle of the little bare tree where the REAL Harris' Sparrow has been most often seen.

Ha, ha, ha.

Well, seeing this (actually, having it pointed out to me by another birder) was pretty much the highlight of my birding weekend. Which was odd, as I managed to score two lifers this weekend. This is a good number for two mornings' worth of birding—but for some reason, it felt as though the birding scene around here was kind of dull.

On Saturday, I went back to La Chua Trail, on the hunt for White-throated Sparrows (dipped on these), as well as the Harris' Sparrow and Whooping Cranes (dipped on these, too). There had also been sightings of a Ross' Goose out there the day before, but I dipped on this as well—as did every other birder I encountered out there.

But the Sandhill Cranes were still out in numerous and noisy force, snarfing away happily at anything and everything:

At this tine of year, La Chua Trail is quite the meet-and-greet place for nature lovers of all persuasions—everyone loves those cranes! Over the past few weeks, I've run into several of my University of Florida colleagues there, as well as le tout Gainesville of the birding community. Never in a million years would I have considered putting "birding" and "professional networking opportunity" in the same sentence, but it's something to do when the birds are scarce...

Today was the much-anticipated Alachua Audubon field trip to Persimmon Point, an area of Paynes Prairie usually closed to the public and supposedly a great spot for winter sparrows. I say "supposedly" because once we made the two-mile hike up there (on a very pretty trail, which we spent regrettably little time birding), we ended up seeing three sparrows. Not three species of sparrows. Three sparrows. Period.

And this was after the trip leaders had us slog in a long horizontal line through fields of 3-foot-high broom sedge, blackberry bushes, briars, and prickly pears in order to flush out the swarms of sparrows allegedly hidden within.

We did manage to scare up a flock of Bobwhites—the first of my two lifers—but they flew off before I could get any photos or get a good look at them.

Our trip leaders were flummoxed, and had no explanation for the strange absence of sparrows up there. So we retreated back towards the lower part of the prairie where—finally—a less-common sparrow, a Grasshopper Sparrow, deigned to appear for us. This was Lifer #2 for me: Yes, I know this photo blows chunks; the little guy was quite sedate and sat in one spot for several minutes, but wasn't quite close enough for a real beauty shot:

So now I know how to pick a Grasshopper Sparrow out of a lineup, and I know the call of a Bobwhite Ia little like a truncated California Quail call So it really wasn't such a boring weekend after all.

And a weekend of boring birding is always better than a weekend of no birding at all.

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