May 19th , 2013 8:00 am 1 Comment

First visit in 80 year by a Clay-colored Sparrow excites area birders

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Mary Beierle, Elizabethton, sent me an email last week to let me know of a flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at her home.
“Last week, we had at least nine pair of grosbeaks at our feeders here in Stoney Creek,” Beierle wrote. “They only hung around for a few days, and now they are gone. I’ll bet they’ll be back in the fall, hopefully.”

On Saturday, May 11, participants in a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park enjoyed a look at a beautiful male Blue Grosbeak, which is another member of the grosbeak family that also includes Evening Grosbeak and Black-headed Grosbeak.

Normally, a Blue Grosbeak would be one of the major highlights of any bird walk. On this particular occasion, however, the grosbeak got overshadowed by an historic sighting.

This spring walk is held annually at Sycamore Shoals in conjunction with the observance of International Migratory Bird Day. The migratory nature of birds was certainly in play when Tom McNeil noticed a small sparrow in a shrub near a feeder adjacent to the parking lot at the visitors center.

In his wildest imagination, he never expected to find a Clay-colored Sparrow come into focus as he turned his binoculars on the small bird. After all, the only other Clay-colored Sparrow ever reported in Northeast Tennessee was observed back in the spring of 1933.

Understandably, he was anxious to get some other birders to get their binoculars on the bird. When I pulled into the parking lot, Tom was gesturing to indicate he had located a good bird.

As I got out of the car, the last thing I expected was a Clay-colored Sparrow. That possibility didn’t really cross my mind. I suspected that Tom had found an interesting warbler.

When he informed me and some other new arrivals of his sighting, everyone began scanning for the bird. Almost as an aside, he also let us know that he had heard a singing Blue-winged Warbler.

The sparrow, after making us wait for just a short amount of time, finally put in an appearance. At this point, about a dozen people aimed binoculars at the bird as a steady spring rain began to fall.

We also heard the Blue-winged Warbler sing. Or, we thought that was what we were hearing. At some point, we realized the buzzy notes were being produced by the sparrow, not an unseen warbler.

Observers began to call other birders to give them an alert about the presence of the sparrow. We also began to take photographs of the bird. As the word trickled out, birders from Johnson City, Fall Branch, Bristol and Blountville reached the park in record time.

Bird walk attendees, in addition to Tom and myself, included Darla Anderson, Brookie and Jean Potter, Rex and Chris Whitfield and Roy Knispel.

Soon on the scene were Rick Knight, Larry McDaniel, Gary Wallace, Rob Biller, Juanita Davis, Ron and Christine Carrico, Jim D. Anderson, David Kirshke, Gil Derouen, Glen Eller, Jerry Bevans and Robin Lynch. I suppose the possibility of seeing a rarity gets birders moving on a Saturday morning.

The Clay-colored Sparrow is a tiny sparrow in the Spizella genus that includes Chipping Sparrows and Field Sparrows. Clay-colored Sparrows breed in shrubby open areas and pine stands across central Canada and the central-northern region of the United States east to the Great Lakes.

Although it had been 80 years since this sparrow has been observed in Northeast Tennessee, there are about a dozen records of this bird in the state. It’s not a rare bird in its expected range, but this sparrow does not usually migrate through Tennessee.

For many birders present, it was a chance to add this species to their state lists. For me, it was a chance to do that and also add the bird to my life list since I have never seen a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Readers will remember that I added another bird — Red-necked Phalarope — to my life list the previous week. To add two life birds to that list in the space of only a couple of weeks was an exciting accomplishment.

As I mentioned, the Clay-colored Sparrow is a tiny bird. That fact was emphasized when it fed on the ground with a much larger White-throated Sparrow.

It would be easy to overlook this bird by dismissing it as one of the sparrows that are often called LBBs, or “Little Brown Birds.” A closer look, however, rewards an observer with a glimpse of a bird with a subtle beauty evident in the details.
The plumage of the Clay-colored Sparrow features black-streaked brown upper-parts and buff under-parts. It’s that buffy coloration that gives the bird its name. The face is pale with a finely streaked crown, crisp brown cheek patch, white eyestripe and gray nape. This sparrow also has pinkish-gray legs and feet and a light colored bill.

Its population has been affected by human progress, both negatively and positively. When pioneers plowed the prairies to produce farmland, they eliminated much of the habitat of the Clay-colored Sparrow. Later, however, as human development cleared extensive forests, new habitat was created and the Clay-colored Sparrow began extending its range northeastward.

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The Clay-colored Sparrow, incidentally, was Bird No. 139. Obviously, I saw some birds after my press deadline last week and wasn’t able to include them in my column.

I added two rather rare migrants to my list on May 9 when I visited Austin Springs on Boone Lake to search for a Willet and a Surf Scoter reported by other birders.

I found the Surf Scoter without any difficulty. This duck provided plentiful views in both a scope and binoculars. It became Bird No. 136 for the year.

It took some extensive searching to add a Willet to my list. On my first visit, I missed the bird completely. I returned again later in the day and succeeded, finding the Willet wandering among thousands of blooming buttercups in the flooded pasture at Austin Springs.

While I have seen numerous Willets during vacations to coastal South Carolina, this is only the second I have seen in Tennessee. I saw my first Willet in the Volunteer State many years ago during a Labor Day trip to Rankin Bottoms at Douglas Lake. This particular Willet became Bird No. 137 for the year.

While enjoying this string of good luck, I made an additional stop at Winged Deer Park after leaving Austin Springs. I had a bird in mind, and I needed only five minutes to hear and then locate a singing male Baltimore Oriole. The oriole became Bird No. 138 for 2013.

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This brings me back to Saturday, May 11, and the excitement of the Clay-colored Sparrow sighting. While at Sycamore Shoals, I also observed the aforementioned Blue Grosbeak as well as Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and another bird — Cedar Waxwing — that made my year list. A flock of waxwings at the park allowed me to add this species as Bird No. 140 for 2013.

Later that day, I learned of two Semipalmated Plovers at the parking lot at Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. I arrived and found these tiny shorebirds. They were foraging around the edges of the parking lot, ignoring the nearby pond on the campus. They became Bird No. 141 on my year list. I’ve often described this plover as a miniature version of its larger relative, the Killdeer. The Semipalmated Plover became Bird No. 141 for the year.

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My next four additions to my year list came with a stop at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Monday, May 13, when I hoped to get another look at the lingering Clay-colored Sparrow. I didn’t find it, but I did add several birds. Red-eyed Vireo became Bird No. 142 while Black-throated Blue Warbler made the list as Bird No. 143. My visit to the park also added Yellow-billed Cuckoo to the list as Bird No. 144. I also got a great look at a male American Redstart in the trees near the park’s amphitheater. This warbler became Bird No. 145, which is also the most recent addition at press time for this week’s column.

Photo by Jean PotterThe Clay-colored Sparrow found at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.<br /><p class=" src="http://www.starhq.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Jean-Clay-ColoredSparrow-150x150.jpg" width="150" height="150" /> Photo by Jean Potter
The Clay-colored Sparrow found at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

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Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am also on Facebook.

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