My Name’s Nelson

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.

nelson

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.

I smiled.

“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
road.”

“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.

nelson_head

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.

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On Flexibility

She came to me with the instructions. There was a picture of two people putting the bottom of the desk on the top. “You see,” she said, “it will take both of us.”

She had bought the desk from Ikea earlier in the day. The problem with most items purchased at Ikea is not quality, but that you have to assemble them yourself. Have you ever looked at the directions that come with such things? If they were directions to a geographic location, I’d give you even odds that you’d never arrive.

She assembled the desk herself, though at one point while taking a break, she decided to write Ikea and suggest that they provide free assembly for folks as old as she is. I offered, the mandatory, you’re not that old to which she replied, “putting together desks I am.”

She got it mostly right on the first try. A couple of railings for the drawers were upside down, and the hole in the top of the desk designed to allow cords from computers and such was in the back instead of the front. But those would prove to be simple fixes.

She returned, her rest over, to finish the job. “There is a lot of bending and twisting,” she said. “You need to be flexible to do this kind of work,” she said.

“Like tying your shoes,” I said.
“Yes like tying your shoes,” she said.

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If You Have to Ask

There is no poop fairy, or so the sign read. I was looking for a Clay-colored Sparrow looking mostly up and not down, so it’s good that the dog owners were heeding the sign, though one very large dog, not on a leash, chose to bark at me. His owner said he was just saying hello, but I recognize that tone of voice, and wasn’t so sure. He finally put it back on its leash. Why is it that every dog owner thinks their dog is perfectly trained and doesn’t need to stay on leash? Everyone knows that Mojo, David Wheeler’s dog is the only well behaved pooch in the state, at least that I’ve ever met.
There was no poop fairy, and there was also no Clay-colored Sparrow though to his credit Kenny stayed around in the searing heat trying to relocate it for us. So reluctantly I headed for home, a big dipper, not for the first time in my life. I considered going back later in the day, but rehydrating after my afternoon, and a comfortable chair kept me at home.
I check my email later and discover that Bryant and the Beyers have seen the bird and not wanting to look for it in the dark I resolve to be there first thing the following morning. I arrive about eight and spend a couple of hours birding. A couple of Spotted Towhees greet me, and a Brewer’s Sparrow gets my heart beating for a moment, but other than the ubiquitous Scrub Jays and a couple of noisy chickadees I don’t see much, and to my dismay the target bird. Matt joins me, and I decide to continue the search for a while longer. Matt I’ve discovered is almost as unlucky as I am, Blue-headed Vireos aside.

We decided that it was probably a one-day bird, and left the poop fairy to her admonitions. It was later that day, in the heat of the afternoon, the same time of day my initial fruitless search took place that Rachel reports she has relocated the damn bird. And so sucker that I am I return to Olympus Hills Park for the fourth time, figuring it was seen in the evening the day before it after being seen earlier in the day, an omen if ever there was one. But alas it was not to be. I’d had enough, I’d missed three times is the charm and a fourth try was an obsessive birder getting what he deserved.

I slept poorly, dreaming of what might have been, the following morning Doug Mead called, from the parking lot of the park asking for directions, I told him about the poop fairy but had no intention of returning. I couldn’t resist however the automatic, call me if you find it. He said he would and about 40 minutes later I heard my birder is calling ring-tone “I like birds.” I asked him where he was exactly and if he would be there. He promised he would and when Gail and I arrived 15 minutes later, climbed the hill past the poop fairy down to the oak by the bench, turned west and started down the trail we spotted Doug just up the hillside. He was watching the spot where the Clay-colored had landed and not yet left. It only took a few minutes before the Clay-colored and a much less patterned Brewer’s popped up to give us a good look. I grabbed my camera for a shot just as the bird dropped down, and then as I tried to get closer, I watched as it flew low and straight about 50 yards to the northwest. It was then Matt arrived and though we chased the birds around the hillside we didn’t succeed in getting a picture of anything but Brewer’s Sparrows. Sorry Matt, but that was only your fourth attempt for the bird, and as I learned it is the fifth time that is the charm, or maybe as the sign said there is no poop fairy and at least for you there is no Clay-colored Sparrow.

How do you know if you’re looking at a Clay-colored Sparrow and not a Brewer’s? First you look in your Sibley’s. You note all the field marks that separate the Clay-colored from the Brewers. The lack of streaking on an all gray nape is a good mark. The white median crown stripe is also important, and the dark mustache is significant. But most important, you’re in awe of how boldly patterned the face is. The pattern catches you off guard like the first time you saw a Lark Sparrow’s face. In short if you have to ask, it’s a Brewer’s.

I was thinking of returning tomorrow for some photos, but Gail tells me we’re going to Clover Springs and scoring a really rare something or other. “Folks are starting to complain when they see us,” she says. Thanks for the Oriole they say and thanks for the Little Blue Heron, but what have you done for us lately.

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The Crowd

The crowd in the square is large.  Some of them are walking.  They are walking in 360 different directions.  Some are following a hypotenuse hoping to save time. Others stay in one place, though even those turn.  Those alone seem to turn away from the sun, though  a subset of those alone, more skimpily dressed face the sun, or rotate slowly as if on a spit.  Those speaking with others, of course, face those they are conversing with though they sometimes subtlety change their position trying to get their backs to the sun, and their conversant, being polite slowly shifts so that they continue to face the one speaking to them.  It is not clear if they are aware of the subterfuge, tolerating it without comment, or making their excuses and leaving on one of the 360 paths available. It begins to rain the square is soon empty.

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Bullies

The European starling is a bully. There are only a few birds that will stand their ground when the starlings come round. A house finch or a chickadee will skedaddle at first sight. A robin will hold it’s ground for a time, but eventually yield. The scrub jays, on the other hand, will chase the bullies, putting them in their place. Still the starlings don’t yield easily or quickly; they are dogged. An accipiter, a cooper’s hawk, for example, would love an encounter with a stand-your-ground starling. A cooper’s prefers mid-sized birds, doves, and yes starlings. Unlike the falcons, a peregrine, for example, loves to eat the starlings brain and will use its beak to kill and then consume its favorite part, the cooper’s doesn’t use its bill to kill. It holds it’s prey away from its body and squeezes the life out of it. There are even records of cooper’s holding their prey under water and drowning it. I’d like to see that, not the squeezing or the drowning, but the result, a world with fewer bullies.

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Lost Keys

A pencil fell out of my trousers as I put them on this morning. I picked it up and put it back in my pocket. It was then I noticed that my car keys were missing. I checked the floor, the most-likely place, I surmised. They weren’t there. I asked my wife, if she’d seen them. She said the last time she saw them they were on the dashboard of the car. I checked, and sure enough there they were along with a crisp $10.00 bill. A thief would have been thrilled, a car with the keys in plain sight and money for gas.

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Double-Double

We make the now mandatory stop at Glover Pond, and reluctantly accept that the Little Blue Heron, who has been missing for three days now, is probably gone. We drive east on Glover to the frontage road and then south where we see two Swainson’s Hawks circling. There are also two rainbows, a double, and below Shyloh. He’s frolicking, lost in the moment, his Canon firing, trying to capture a double-double, the hawks and the rainbows.

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