Sharing a Secret - Le Conte's Sparrow

October 19, 2016

Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) is a very secretive, small sparrow found in grassy meadows and rare in this part of the province of Ontario. Even when singing, this bird can be very difficult to see. So imagine how difficult it must be to see one during fall migration when it's not singing. A quick check of eBird's database for 2016 in southern Ontario revealed a Le Conte's Sparrow seen at Point Pelee National Park (about a 3.5 hour drive for me), in September and one earlier in May at the same location. Fortunately for local birders and photographers, on October 17, David Pryor found spotted one, which has hung around for the past two days allowing many birders to catch a glimpse of this elusive species. When I received the email alert, I headed out in search of it, but my efforts were not rewarded on day one primarily because I wasn't searching in the right area of the park. However, the following day I received news that it was still around and this time I obtained more specific directions from a birding friend who had seen it, which led me to the proper location where a few other birders were looking for the skulky sparrow. It took a while, but about a half hour later one of the birders spotted it and everyone had a chance to get pretty good close views of it, albeit it for a brief period. 

I was thrilled to finally add this species to my life list and I was pleased to get some photos before it flew away to another nearby patch. The two similar photos shown here were the best I could get during my brief observations. Although not a clean shot of the bird, I think it gives the reader a good idea of the typical habitat of this species. I stayed for another two hours looking for another photo opportunity, but it wasn't to be. Le Conte's Sparrow can remain well hidden in tall grass or meadows and often won't move even if you happen to be within a few feet of it. Occasionally, I or one of the other birders would see it fly briefly to another nearby patch of meadows and despite knowing more or less where it landed, none of us could find it despite waiting patiently for it to surface.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Etobicoke, Ontario
1/800, f/5.6, ISO 2000, 1D X, Canon 400mm DO II +1.4x tc

In my opinion, Le Conte's Sparrow (LCSP), along with Nelson's Sparrow and Henslow's Sparrow are quite striking in appearance. I feel very fortunate to have added all three of these species to my life list during 2016. LCSP has a bright orange eybrow and buffy breast with streaks confined to the sides, which one can see in these photos. In addition, looking at the first photo in particular, one can see the purplish chestnut streaks on the nape. The second photo shows the white median crown stripe quite well.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Etobicoke, Ontario
1/800, f/5.6, ISO 2000, 1D X, Canon 400mm DO II +1.4x tc

Nelson's Sparrow, shown below, has some similarities with Le Conte's Sparrow. However, amongst other differences, it has a bright, buffy-orannge face and eyebrow together with a grey cheek and nape. Its only Ontario breeding areas are the edge of Hudson and James Bay and extreme western Ontario, so migration is likely the best opportunity to see this species as well.

Nelson's Sparrow - Sand Lake Area, Cape Breton Island, NS
1/1250, f/5.6, ISO 1250, 7D Mark II, 400mm DO II +1.4x tc

Henslow's Sparrow, also from the genus Ammodramus is also a secretive sparrow of fields. The two pictures shown here that I made back in May of this year highlight some of its key characteristics, including a large pale beak, olive-green face with double malar stripe, and finely dark-striped across its breast. It also shows rufous in the wings and its belly is whitish.

If someone had suggested to me at the beginning of this year that I would see all three of Le Conte's Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow and Henslow's Sparrow in 2016, I probably would have told them they were nuts. Little did I know!

Henslow's Sparrow
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio
Henslow's Sparrow
Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio

New Gallery Photos Added                       Gallery

Le Conte's Sparrow                                    Emberizids Part 2

 

Happy Birding,

Claude

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