Birdwatch

Little Brown Bird How I Love Thee!

In search of the rare grasshopper sparrow

By Susan Campbell

One of the rarest breeding birds here in the Piedmont is the grasshopper sparrow. This diminutive, cryptically colored bird can only be found in very specific habitat: contiguous, large grassland. Such large fields are increasingly hard to find across our state these days. And even if you seek out the right habitat, seeing an individual, even a territorial male, is not very likely because they are so secretive and well camouflaged. But if you persist, you might hear one of them. Their voices are quite characteristic: a very high-pitched buzzy trill. It is the combination of their call and the typically grasshopper-rich areas in which they are found that gives them their name.

Nowadays these birds are only found in manmade grasslands. In the Sandhills, the only location where they breed is at the Moore County Airport. I have identified as many as 12 grasshopper sparrow territories between the runway and Airport Road. I suppose some birds may use what are called drop zones, areas targeted for paratrooper operations at Fort Bragg. However, these typically have a variety of plants — not ideal territory for these birds. Up around Greensboro, I hear that they can be found scattered among the agricultural fields along Baldwin Road. If you make the trip, also be on the lookout for a dickcissel, a fairly, large, yellowish sparrow-like individual that is even, an even rarer find.

Grasshopper sparrows return from their wintering grounds in Mexico and the southeastern coastal plain of the United States by mid-March.  Males spend much time singing from taller vegetation, often beginning their day well before dawn. They use short, low fluttering flight displays to impress potential females. Eggs are laid in cup-shaped nests in a slight depression, hidden by overhanging grasses, containing four or five creamy-colored eggs that are speckled reddish-brown.

Habitat loss has certainly affected the small local populations of these birds, plus routine mowing of these fields usually destroys nests. But the birds stay and attempt to nest again. In shorter grass, their nests are easily detected by predators, such as foxes and raccoons. Therefore, breeding success tends to vary greatly from year to year in these types of locations. If the habitat remains unaltered from May through August, grasshopper sparrow pairs can produce two (and sometimes three) families in a year.

But these birds are also vulnerable to the effects of pesticides. Although they do eat small seeds associated with the grasses that grow around them, they also rely upon significant numbers of insects, especially when they are feeding young.

Grasshopper sparrows are surely not easy to observe in summer but, in winter, they are even harder to find. They mix in with other sparrows that frequent open spaces and seldom sing. But for those experienced birdwatchers who enjoy the challenge that comes with sorting through “little brown birds,” (like me!), their flat foreheads, large bills and buffy underparts are a welcome sight.   PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com.

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