The "Famously" Inconspicuous Henslow's Sparrow

I've really been taking the "Year of the Bird" to heart. This year I decided to carve out some birding just for myself on top of the classes and events I host. It's been one of the best springs (of course, I say that every spring when there are great birds). This week has just been spectacular. 

I got my whole birding by ear class on this amazing Henslow's sparrow.

I wasn't going to post this part, but I feel like I should for the sake of new bird guides everywhere...sometimes bird guides make mistakes. Accept it, take responsibility for it, do your best to make it right, learn from it, but most importantly: get over it. In the last two years I have been experimenting leading birding by ear classes and field trips. From a guiding perspective these are great: I'm  not guaranteeing that we will see birds, but we will hear them--which is the case for a great many species! We usually see the birds on these outings, but I find this hits the sweet spot of under promise and over deliver. 

 I was loading my stuff into the car for my 8am birding by ear class. I was going to arrive at 7:30am so I was a half an hour early. As I loaded my car I got a text, "How close are you, everyone is checked in for the class."

"Wow," I thought, "that's great people are so early...oh wait..."

This was my brain:

Yep. I got the times for my class confused. I wasn't set to be early, I was set to be late. I think I need this to happen to me about once every eight years to keep me humble. I arrived and apologized for wasting people's time and promised amazing birds and a binocular cleaning if they needed it. 

However the group was forgiving and the weather was wonderful. The birds were incredibly obliging as we heard scarlet tanagers and recently fledged chickadees all around us. Someone even got great looks at their lifer common yellowthroat. When I do these sorts of classes, my brain is constantly listening for what's the next sound to talk about. I try to stick birds singing nearby and ones that I think people remember or have a chance to hear in your neighborhood.

 Prairie area around Richardson Nature Center.

Prairie area around Richardson Nature Center.

Sometimes I can hear a "good bird" but if I know it's a long shot to get the group on it, I'll "pick my battles" and ignore it. If there is an easy to view redstart nest ten feet away and a black-throated green warbler singing very far away, I'll focus the group on the restart. I do sometimes ask the group what they want. I was doing a digiscoping workshop and as the group was practicing on a ring-billed gull, I heard a Le Conte's sparrow on territory. I announced, "Hey, gang, I should tell you, there's a really great sparrow singing behind me. They're really hard to see, super lurky in the grass and we will have to work for it, but if you'd rather do that than take pictures of a gull we can."

They looked at me like I offered them broccoli ice cream and so we ignored the Le Conte's. I, however, went back later and photographed the crap out of it. 

As we walked along I suddenly heard a faint and familiar sparrow sound. It was a Henslow's sparrow, a state-threatened species in Minnesota. Their call is not easy to discern if you aren't familiar with it. In fact, I always notice it because it's so...so...blah. It's kind of like a half-assed house sparrow call. All About Birds notes that these birds are "famously inconspicuous."

I had the group listen and get familiar with the call. I offered to play a taped call once to see if we could get it to pop up, but I warned that they don't always respond to it. Sometimes Henslow's perch just below the grass and you can't see them. The group was curious and we tried it. The bird never popped up. But we got to hear it very well. We continued our way around the prairie and heard a second one singing. I'd never had a Henslow's at Richardson Nature Center, so to get two singing birds was amazing. This time we were able to spot the bird, I got in the scope and it did exactly what I said it would do, perch just below the tops of the grasses. Our binocular and scope views of the bird were obscured by vegetation but people got to see a really great sparrow for Minnesota.

We continued our way around the prairie, got some great looks at bluebirds and indigo buntings when we heard a third Henslow's sparrow. This one was really loud and sounded like it right in front of us. Sure enough someone in my group found it and it was 10 feet in front of us, teed up nicely on some vegetation above the grass.

Henslow's Sparrow.jpg

Everyone got a look and I was able to take photos of the bird for people with their phones through my scope and of course get the video that you see at the top of this post. 

I also cleaned a few binoculars as penance for being late.