Ammodramus nelsoni, common name Nelson’s Sparrow, is a secretive little cuss who spends his summers in Canada and Alaska and migrates a curved path to the gulf coast in the fall. This is an account of a Nelson’s Sparrow, who, a little off course, passed through Utah to the delight of the local birding community.
It was early in the day when I first saw the report, but I had things to do that couldn’t wait. I finished my errands quickly worried that Nelson would leave and I wouldn’t see him.
It was an incredible find. It was amazing that Bryant spotted him, and it was a state first to boot. I’m sure I would have mistaken him for a Savannah’s who had dipped his head in an orange custard, and seeing a bird without a name tag, I would pass right by him.
The plumber was still working on our water heater, when I got back. It was going to take at least another hour. I couldn’t wait. I turned to my sweetheart and said. “I want to chase the bird.”
“You’re going to walk 4 miles, probably in the rain, for a bird you may not even see,” she said.
“Have fun and be careful,” she said.
When I started down the dike road, the weather was nice. I could see birders in the distance heading for or returning from their search for the bird. Did they find him, would I find him?
I found two birders one looking, and one just leaving. The one leaving said he’d seen the sparrow a little more than half way to the spot of the original sighting, and pointed at some cattails on the south side of the road. I joined in the search with the remaining birder, Joel. We hadn’t searched for long when started raining and then hailing, but the weather only slightly dampened our enthusiasm. Mike and Taylor joined us, we told them about the last sighting, and they began searching with us.
I wondered as the time wore on if it were possible the bird would move so far in such a short time, or if there was a second Nelson’s or maybe just a missed ID. Birds do have wings after all, but a Nelson’s is known for its short flights, and the more we looked without success, the less confident I was in finding the bird where we were looking.
Matt had seen the bird earlier in the day and had taken pictures, and so I called him to see where he had seen the bird. The directions he provided were close to the original sighting mere yards away from the first sighting not miles.
I decided to abandon my current search and head for the original location. I met Joel, who had gone part way up the road, but was on his way back. I told him what Matt had said, and he agreed we should continue the search in that location. We arrived after another 15 minutes of walking.
“Somewhere along here,” I said, “on the north side of the
“And there he is,” Joel said.
Hi my name’s Nelson, the bird seemed to say, nice day. He posed for several minutes, giving us side views and front views and back views. He dipped his head so we could see that there was no white median crown stripe like the one his cousin Le Conte sports.
We got dozens of photos before Nelson flew. Flew, no. more like he fluttered a few feet to the east, like a little helicopter losing power and crashing into the cattails. Taylor and Mike were still at the first search area, so I called and said we got him. He popped up again, I stuffed my phone in my pocket, not sure if they got the message, and started enjoying the bird again. It was 15 minutes before Mike and Taylor arrived, but Nelson was very obliging and made several more appearances. They both got good looks and pictures.
“Well,” she said when I walked through the door. “Did you get it.”
“I did indeed,” I said and started blabbering about what a beautiful bird it was, cute as hell, I said. A darling little bird, I continued.
“I got pictures, “ I said.
It was when I showed her the pictures that she got excited.
“We’re going tomorrow, “she said.
It was 10:00 a.m. the following morning we began the walk across the dike road 1.8 miles, knowing that whether we saw the bird or not we would be walking 1.8 miles back to the car.
I wondered if the bird would be as accommodating as it had been the previous day. I wondered if we would see it at all. When we arrived at the spot, I was still weighing our chances. But there it was, no searching at all, in almost the same place as the day before. “There you go,” I said, and pointed at the bird. Gail started oohing and awing. I snapped a couple of more photos, and we watched the bird for a while. It would disappear and then a few minutes later reappear. Finally, it seemed to be staying down and so we left.
The following morning, day three let’s call it, I told Gail I’d like to return. You’ve seen it twice she said. I know, but I want to try the road from Bountiful Pond it is shorter than the way we went, and Shyloh tells me that the stretch of road is very birdy. So off I went intent on visiting Nelson’s neighborhood one last time, and maybe taking some more pictures.
I arrived about 10:00 a.m. and found Terry there camera and binoculars at the ready. He’d been there about 20 minutes and had yet to see the bird. Doug, Billie, and Dickson had created an arrow from rocks pointing at the spot where the bird was last seen. It was about thirty feet from where I’d left a fist-sized rock and a spent shotgun shell to mark the spot I’d first seen him
We watched carefully and Terry got a very brief glimpse, a dark head, in the cattails. I believe I saw it take one of it’s brief flights a few feet to the west, but other than that nothing. The accommodating bird I’d seen the two previous days had become as Tim put it, “much more in its ammodramus fashion skulking in the cattails. . .” Barb arrived and we continued to watch. I’d wandered up the road a bit when Terry hearing a marsh wren turned to Barb to say there’s a marsh wren only to hear her say no it’s the Nelson’s. Terry, in a move that would make a quick draw cowboy proud raised his Canon and fired off a quick shot, amazingly he got a perfectly focused side view of the bird. The bird once again disappeared, and Terry and Barb left. I decided to stay for a bit since Deedee was on her way. She arrived, but after 30 minutes and a threatening sky we decided to leave, Nelson refusing to give her even a brief look, a bird that was once accommodating was anything but.
It was as Shyloh had said a birdy route back to the Bountiful Pond and we got some nice looks of a Virginia Rail, another bird with a skulky reputation.
The next days there were more visitors to see the sparrow, and they really deserved the brief looks they got. The bird didn’t appear long enough for anyone to get a picture and the looks were hours between not minutes.
One birder and photographer spent four hours and though he saw the bird several times it was never long enough to get off a shot.
Nelson was still there last I heard, but Saturday is the beginning of the duck hunt. If Nelson hasn’t grown tired of the birders pleading for a brief look, he may find the booming of the hunters guns a sign to continue his migration.