Saturday, December 26, 2009

Finding those Cassin's Sparrows

We missed Cassin's Sparrow last year. That was something of a surprise, given that we had a large number of prepared participants thoroughly birding areas known to have Cassin's Sparrows in the winter. Even with so many years of suboptimal coverage and weather, the species was seen on just over half of all Atascosa Highlands CBC's. This circle even had 108 one year, which was the all-time national high until Ramsey Canyon got 193 in 1982.

Well, one reason we missed it was that it was just a bad year for many sparrows. We also missed Grasshopper Sparrow and had only 7 Brewer's Sparrows, after all. But there was one thing we didn't do.

In the wake of last year's CBC, I had some interesting e-mail conversations with Scott Mills, who was the compiler of this count through the late 70's, 80's, and early 90's.

Says Scott, "They respond really well to playbacks of taped songs in winter - they apparently hold territories and chip like crazy (and often come to the tape) when a song is played. The first year I tried it I got something like 45 birds with tape in an area where I had flushed only two simply by walking through the grass."

He mentions Wise Mesa and the steep upper edge of Atascosa Canyon (in area 10. Bear Valley Ranch) as being especially good areas. One winter I flushed a few in the open, scrubby mesquite slopes on the east side of Arivaca Lake. I suspect there are some in every area of the circle in the right habitats. The grassiest areas with very scattered mesquite are the best. And although I'd like to have a calm, warm, sunny day, he reminded me that in snow, many of the skulking sparrows (including Grasshopper and Baird's) are seen perched in shrubs.

So, now in addition to your GPS and digital camera, don't forget your iPod and external speaker.

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