Thursday, 20 October 2016

Le Conte's Sparrow(s) in Mississauga

On Monday morning while dutifully birding Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga, Dave Pryor encountered a Le Conte's Sparrow skulking in the long grass. Dave had been checking this park daily as good numbers of sparrows and other songbirds often can be found there, and this was the second Ammodramus sparrow that Dave had found there in less than 10 days, after a Nelson's Sparrow that he found on October 8.

I am a huge Toronto Blue Jays fan and have been trying to attend as many postseason games as I can this year, so of course I had tickets to game 3 (Don't ask me how that game went). I had about half an hour of time to search for the Le Conte's prior to meeting up with Dan Riley for the game, but unfortunately it remained hidden during my brief vigil.

The following morning, it was reported that the sparrow was still present so I was determined to try again for it on my way home. Le Conte's Sparrow is a species that I have seen in each of the past five years, but normally my sightings are of birds on the breeding grounds in northern Ontario, as well as autumn migrants while on birding trips to the Thunder Bay area or to James Bay. My only previous sighting for southern Ontario was a bird that Dan Salisbury had discovered on I believe April 30, 2012 at Point Pelee.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga

Luckily the Le Conte's Sparrow was easily located as 20+ birders had it cornered in some long grass when I arrived at the stakeout. It was rather shy as they tend to be, but eventually provided excellent looks as it peered at all of us from within the grasses. Eventually I was able to photograph it, though not well as there were too many grasses in the way and the light wasn't ideal.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (October 18, 2016)

The bird can be aged as an adult due to the brightness of its plumage; particularly, the bright orange supercilium and upper breast. Immature birds are much duller with muted colours and more extensive streaking on the underparts.

Le Conte's Sparrow - Marie Curtis Park, Mississauga (Ocotber 18, 2016)

It was brought to my attention in an email thread with Garth Riley, Reuven Martin and David Pryor that most of the photos of the bird from October 17 (the day that David Pryor found it) show an immature Le Conte's Sparrow, while most of the photos from October 18 show an adult bird (the one I photographed). 

Below are a few eBird checklists from October 17 with embedded photos of the immature bird. In particular, notice the extensive streaking on the upperparts (including the center of the upper breast), dull, pale yellow breast (compared to bright orange on the adult bird), and yellowish supercilium with some streaking through it (compared to solid orange supercilium on the adult) among other features. Due to the wet conditions, the bird appeared a lot darker than it would with dry feathers, but the differences are still quite noticeable.  

Below is a photo of an immature Le Conte's Sparrow that I snapped at the Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District on September 25, 2014. Note how dull and plain this bird is, much like the immature Le Conte's Sparrow photographed in the eBird links above. Of course conditions were dry so it is not as dark as the immature Le Conte's Sparrow from Marie Curtis Park.

immature Le Conte's Sparrow  - Abitibi Canyon, Cochrane District (September 25, 2014)

Dave Pryor mentioned to me in an email that when he first saw the bird on October 17, he noticed how bright it was, but when he subsequently re-found it a short time later on October 17 it was duller, which he attributed to the rain and poor light. Dave speculated that perhaps both birds were present on October 17, but that it was impossible for him to say. 

At any rate, thanks Dave for finding such a great bird (or birds?) for southern Ontario that myself and many others were able to enjoy! Perhaps the most important takeaway is that Marie Curtis Park provides excellent meadow habitat that is utilized by a wide range of species, including Ammodramus sparrows. It is one of the few remaining places along this part of the north shore of Lake Ontario that provides good meadow habitat, an extremely important type that is frequently destroyed for more "aesthetically pleasing" land uses such as manicured grass. Hopefully this does not happen and Marie Curtis Park can continue to provide meadow to a wide range of migratory songbirds in the future. 

1 comment:

  1. Great find! One was found outside of Ottawa last week, but it didn't stick around long enough for me to see it.