June 4 2017. Sharronville State Game Area, Michigan. I wouldn’t say I was skeptical of Dan and his quest for yet another sparrow for his collection and for flying all the way from British Columbia to see one, but I’ve seen lots of sparrows and by and large they they are well, just little brown jobs; not all, just most. But to be fair, look back in these pages and you’ll probably find I’ve shone a spotlight on Grasshopper Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows and Fox Sparrows from time to time, and maybe others. But here we are, in Michigan, and Henslow’s Sparrow is on the ‘must see’ list.
I hadn’t realized until much later today that Henslow’s Sparrow is a species in trouble. Populations have been in a steep decline over the past century, in fact Henslow’s have suffered the fastest rate of decline of any grassland bird: drainage, degradation and conversion of suitable grasslands from lush hay fields is the problem. So seeing a few Henslow’s today and even getting a few decent shots is, I’ve come to realize, something of a privilege.
It’s not all about sparrows this Michigan trip, Dan has plans that include seeing Cerulean Warblers, Least Bitterns and Golden-winged Warblers among others.
Henslow’s Sparrows were exactly where Dan’s research said they’d be, in an unmowed, lush and rolling hayfield. But just being there is not enough, from our point of view (literally and figuratively) we had to see it too, a diminutive little bird that barely pops it head up above the grass to sing a clipped, reedy ‘seep’ note at four or five second intervals. Fortunately that note carries well given reasonably quiet conditions and I had no trouble detecting it and to my astonishment pinpointing its direction and distance from us.
Okay, so we knew in which direction it lay, but spotting a mouse-sized bird in knee-deep grass (tick-infested by the way) where horizons are short and steep was another problem. But luck was on our side and after making two trips (once early and then again mid-evening) we’d had several sightings, some at quite close range.
The Henslow’s Sparrow and its close relative the Grasshopper Sparrow are both rather pale and undistinguished looking, small heads and an odd, flat-headed profile; I knew kids like that at school; all nose. The Grasshopper Sparrow too has a tiny song: thin, wispy and a bit like the buzz of a grasshopper. For little-brown-jobs they are really rather cute.
There was lot lots more in the day. After we’d made our morning sightings of the Henslow’s Sparrow (plus Sandhill Crane, Grasshopper, Song, Savannah and Field Sparrows too). We stopped at a road that cut across a marsh and along with the expected Swamp Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers, found an Acadian Flycatcher, – which excited me no end because they are a rarity in Ontario and a bird I’d like to get to know much better.
Third stop and last before lunch, was an old rail line that cut across an area of grasslands and lakes and here we found several Dickcissels – another rarity in Ontario and also on Dan’s must-find list. It was an almost-first for me, I recall stumbling across one not far from home several decades ago. This time, instead of the confusion that surrounds an unexpected sighting, we were able to spend quite a bit of time watching and listening to the Dickcissels. It’s an attractive and melodious bird, singing a lisping see-see-DTIK-DTIK-dtik si-si-si-si, a song from which gets its name. At this same site were Bobolinks, a family group of Brown Thrashers and just disappearing into the forest, a Pileated Woodpecker. Oh and lots more, this was the best of June birding.
And all of that was just the morning. The afternoon was hot and tiring but reasonably productive and in the evening we went out at dusk in search of (successfully) singing Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-wills-widows. Against all of that competition ,something like fifty-five species, the Henslow’s Sparrows held its own as My Bird of the Day.