A Henslow’s sparrow and a report on those University Grove owls
My son, Drew, and I spent Mother’s Day weekend at St. Paul Audubon’s Warbler Weekend down in Frontenac, Minn.
Frontenac State Park is one of our favorite spots. Drew remembered talking with someone who had sighted a Henslow’s sparrow along the hike-in camping trail at the park, so we went to find it. The Henslow’s sparrow is both rare and elusive.
It’s a grassland sparrow about 5 inches long, short-tailed and large-headed. It spends its time on or near the ground among the dry, beige winter grass stalks. You can usually hear the bird long before you see it.
It doesn’t really have a very melodic song. It’s described in the field guide as a hiccupping “tsi-lick”—weak-sounding, dry and insect-like. And the bird is somewhat of a ventriloquist. It sings from the ground. I think the apparent direction of the sound depends on which way the bird is facing when it sings. If you’re lucky, it will occasionally perch up on a stalk and announce its territorial claim. It throws its head back, gives the tsi-lick and then sits quietly and motionless.
So we went looking for the Henslow’s sparrow. Two young women had joined us on this foray, Carla and Blair. We spent a half hour or so searching the hike-in trail parking lot for any sign or sound of the sparrow. There was another couple birding there and the woman asked Drew what we were looking for. He told her the Henslow’s sparrow.
“You won’t find a Henslow’s sparrow here!” she said. “This is the wrong habitat!”
To me, she sounded like that woman in the Buick commercial who says, “That doesn’t look like a Buick!”
Well, I had to give some thought to her rebuke. This parking lot was not the right habitat for a Henslow’s or indeed any other grassland sparrow. It was a well-worn grass and dirt parking area, no native grasses at all.
We decided to abandon the quest.
We were heading out when a family of campers drove in to the lot. We watched as they filled up one of the carts with their camping gear and headed across the road to the hike-in camping trail. That’s where we should have been, not the parking lot. So we crossed the road and hiked the trail a little way.
And there, almost on cue, was a Henslow’s sparrow singing from the top of some tall grasses.
We had a good view for quite awhile. Carla got some good photos of the bird. And then we were joined by three or four other folks who had been looking for this rare species, too.
It was a life bird for several people in the group.
Update on those owls
As the Park Bugle reported in the June 2015 issue, the parent owls in the University Grove neighborhood of Falcon Heights raised and fledged one owlet. When the youngster figured out some basic flying moves, it began to roam about the neighborhood, winding up on Rebecca Montgomery’s front porch. She called the University of Minnesota Raptor Center to rescue the fledgling. They not only rescued the wandering owlet, but went one better. They brought along an orphaned great horned owlet to join the first owlet as an adopted sibling.
Things have gone swimmingly. The two little fluff balls have bonded with one another and have been seen snuggling together. And the parents have been busily feeding both offspring as if they were both their own.
University Grove resident Dave Wark reports that he’s noticed “a distinct fall off of visitors to his feeders.” The other critters have cause to be anxious when owls are around, as evidenced by a squirrel head in the grass. I guess that’s one way to keep squirrels off the feeders.
Karen Kloser has heard the little ones’ chirps starting at dark and lasting for several hours, and then again in the early morning. She says their sound is like “meEEep,” which she has observed is getting deeper and screechier as they age. She says she hasn’t been hearing the adult hoots much, if at all.
My theory is that the parents are being very attentive to their little brood, stuffing them full of food right after night falls. That holds them until just before dawn, when the adults provide another feeding to hold them through the day. In fact, Montgomery, the resident who notified the Raptor Center about the wayward owlet on her porch, says she recently saw the two chicks together on a branch around 6 a.m. “chewing and pulling on something.” They’re apparently learning to feed themselves with what the parents catch and bring in for them.
Good parents, good progress.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book The Birdman of Lauderdale is available at book and bird stores and at BirdmanBook.com.