Bird #364 — Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow

ammodramus (from ammos, sand, and dramein, to run) nelsoni

Friday, October 9, 1998 — 8:30 am

Du Page County, Illinois — Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

I went to Fermilab to see the Long-billed Dowitchers reported on the internet.  I spotted them almost as soon as I got there.  The report had also mentioned Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows earlier in the week.  They had been seen at the south end of Lake Law, close to where I saw the dowitchers. It looked promising.  Sparrows were everywhere (I saw nine species on the day).

There was a mud flat of about three acres at the south end of the lake.  Most of this was wet, black mud, but the extreme south end was weed covered.  One area was bordered on three sides by five-foot reeds.  I stood in this area and looked at every sparrow that popped into view.  I determined to stay for an hour.  It took about five minutes.  The first three or four birds I saw were Swamp Sparrows.  The next one was a Sharp-tail.

It was perched on a reed about four feet from the ground and about thirty feet from me.  I saw the orange face and knew I was in business.  It hopped around some, then settled on a reed that was bent sideways right at the edge of the open area.  I looked into my scope to get a better look and, to my surprise, discovered that it was already in view.

For ten minutes it stayed in the same place, looking around and preening a bit.  Once or twice it turned around, giving me good views of its back.  Actually, it didn’t stay in one place.  The reed it perched on was sinking under its weight.  By the time it left, it had sunk about two feet.  It stopped briefly on a cattail, then disappeared into the reeds.

I couldn’t have asked for a better view.  I was able to study everything.  It had a heavy, light-colored bill with a dark streak along the top.  Its face, breast and flanks were yellow-orange.  Its belly was white.  There were blurred streaks on the chest and flanks.  Its cheeks and nape were slate gray.  Its crown was rich brown with a gray central stripe.  The back was black with white stripes.  The tail feathers were pointed.

Shortly after the bird disappeared, another birder showed up.  He introduced himself as Peter Kasper.  I recognized him as the person who maintains a web site on the birds of Fermilab.  He asked me what I’d seen and wrote down the birds that he hadn’t seen.  He told me to e-mail him if I saw anything else interesting.  I thanked him for my lifer.  He was very friendly.  He pointed out the types of plants and flowers that attract Sharp-tails.  He also told me he’d just seen a Harris’s Sparrow.  I spent another hour looking for it, but had no more luck.

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