Pennsylvania Expedition


(This 1114th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 29, 2012.)


In mid-July I tagged along with Chris Hollister on his visit to sparrow country south of Clarion in western Pennsylvania.


Sparrow country? Your first reaction, like that of my wife, might be that we have more than enough sparrows here. Sparrows by the dozen crowd out more interesting birds from our feeders. Who needs to get up at 2:30 a.m. and drive 200 miles to see more of them? I'll have to admit that I gave a bit of thought to that inquiry myself as I struggled out of bed that morning.


There are several things about that question that non-birders do not understand. First, those so-called sparrows that infest your hedges and bird feeders are not even true sparrows: they belong to a separate category of weaver finch. And, of course, they are aliens. They were among those species introduced to this country in a misguided program that sought to import to North America all the birds that occur in Shakespeare. (That program brought starlings as well.)


Our true sparrows are far less aggressive. Most common are the song and chipping sparrows, each of which adds to the ambience of suburban and country yards. Other species also come to our feeders in winter and during migration: those are the tree, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows and the dark-eyed junco. Almost all of them move on to breed in the far north. Another species is found here year around: the swamp sparrow, appropriately named for its habitat.


But none of those were the birds we were looking for. We sought grassland sparrows, many of which are increasingly difficult to find. The numbers of field, savannah, grasshopper and vesper sparrows have declined, some precipitously, in recent years and the Henslow's sparrow, named for James Henslow, a friend of Audubon, has now apparently winked out. None have been reported on the Niagara Frontier this year.


Chris had monitored reports of some of these uncommon sparrows from three interesting areas all within a few miles and we set out to visit them, maps and commentaries in hand.


He timed our excursion just right as we arrived at the first site, an area called Piney Tract, just at dawn, the time when birds are most active. The area appeared to be about a square mile of open grassland spotted with widely separated shrubs, mostly honeysuckle, that gave the area its special character. The pines from which the area took its name were in a few groves around the edge of the fields.


We no sooner arrived when Chris heard a vesper sparrow, the only one we would find that day. But then we began to hear the distinctive chepick chirp of Henslow's sparrows, one of our target species. We were shocked to find it the most common bird in the area. We were to find at least an amazing two dozen.


Now came the drum rolls of field sparrows and the buzzing notes of grasshopper and savannah sparrows. Then another of our target birds piped up: a pair of clay-colored sparrows, a mid-continent species only rarely recorded on the Niagara Frontier.


These were not the only birds we found, of course. Among the others were towhees, indigo buntings, meadowlark, a beautiful prairie warbler, a few late bobolinks and an orchard oriole.


Now we moved on to a second area designated the Curllsville Strips, which we found to be quite similar to the Piney Tract. More Henslow's and clay-colored sparrows. And a new species checked in: a dickcissel. This is a sparrow-like midwestern species that occasionally strays east. Its odd name is onomatopoetic: the song one or two dicks followed by a short series of cisses. Once we heard its song, we trained our binoculars on the bush from which it was singing and finally picked it out. It is a handsome sparrow-like bird with a yellow eye-line and malar stripe, chestnut shoulders and a black bib over a yellow chest.


Already sated with interesting species we headed for our last stop: the Armstrong Trail along the Allegany River. No sooner had we left the car when we heard the flee-slip of an Acadian flycatcher. A half hour search then picked up our final target species: a pair of worm-eating warblers.-- Gerry Rising