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Grassland Migrants

Posted by on Sep 29, 2016

Yesterday I was able to enjoy and photograph a couple of uncommon grassland birds for us in the Northeast – the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) and the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). Both of these species had been spotted at Stratford Point where they are almost annual visitors, with Dickcissels typically stopping over in the fall and Grasshopper Sparrows being seen sometimes in both spring and autumn. I decided to take a walk around the site with my friend and great birder Tom Murray as we were giving the sparrows some space in hopes the unseen Grasshopper would pop back out while we were away. While wandering we had a split second glance at a bird zip by us while in the driveway as it flew into a tree. I thought that it was probably a Good Bird and stopped, looked over my shoulder, and sure enough, it was the Dickcissel.

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The bird flew to a nearby treetop while I was photographing it, and Tom called over that it had a friend…another Dickcissel!

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We’ll take it. We went back to the sparrow spot and had more success there as the Grasshopper Sparrow came out into the open. It was rather shy, staying deep in this brush pile while we watched one another. Swamp, Savannah, Song, White-crowned, and White-throated Sparrows were also present.

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RTPI staff documented confirmed breeding of Henslow’s Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows at the Chautauqua County/Jamestown Airport (KJHW) during the summer of 2013. Both species are listed as New York endangered species with the Henslow’s Sparrow classified as ‘threatened’ and the Grasshopper Sparrow classified as ‘special concern’. Working with airport officials, the NY Department of Environmental Conservation and the local birding community, data and information was collected throughout the 2013 summer breeding season, protecting certain areas of the airport from mowing whenever possible.

Botanical studies to determine habitat selection and site usage were undertaken as well. In 2014, RTPI staff worked with student interns from SUNY’s Jamestown Community College to continue this conservation effort conducting both point count surveys for bird life and vegetation surveys. Unfortunately neither species returned to nest in 2014, possibly due to regular airport maintenance mowing that had occurred. We continued some of this work in 2015 and 2016 while monitoring for the species with conservation staff and intern Alex Shipherd. None were detected in Jamestown during the previous two seasons, though Grasshopper Sparrows were sighted at the Chautauqua County/Dunkirk Airport (KDKK) further northwest in Chautauqua County and a pair likely nested there. We plan to make a concerted effort to survey even more extensively for the species in Chautauqua County in 2017, and we will keep on monitoring and recording all of our migrants at Stratford Point, doing our best as conservationists and advocates to make these various habitats all the more favorable for the birds.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator