Bachman's Sparrow netting

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with netting Bachman’s Sparrows  as part of a long term research program developed at Tall Timbers Research Station for some time, but as the field season wound down, the data analysis season wound up.  Now, as the threat of snow looms over horrified Georgians, I long for those humid summer days in the field.

On the morning before I left Tall Timbers for the season I had the opportunity to tag along for mist netting as I have never seen before.  The morning was unseasonably cool (and by cool I mean only mid 80s) as we bounced along the Redland dirt roads in an ATV, golf cart, and truck hybrid known as “the gator.”  When we arrived at our predetermined destination, we cut off the gas and pumped up some Bachman’s Sparrow jams in the hopes of tricking a jealous male into responding.  After a couple of unsuccessful tries, we finally heard the wispy call of an angry male responding to our playback.

That is when we sprang into action.  Since I had never done this before I obediently awaited my orders.  Luckily, those were to “stay put for now.”  I watched as my friends assembled two 20ft mist nets in less than 30secs in front of the singing bird.  Then they ran a big circle wide enough not to scare the bird, and slowly started to approach our undeniably confused feathered friend from behind.  To escape a threat, Bachman’s Sparrows will leap up, fly just above the understory in a longleaf pine forest, and fall back down.  In a long leaf pine forest, most of the plant diversity is found within 4ft of the ground, and in places that have not been recently burned.  This can be like wading though a prickly, shrubby ocean.  This is especially hard for ill-adapted humans, but great cover for a highly evolved Bachman’s Sparrow.  Despite this, the crew was successful many times in rounding up these often heard, rarely seen gems.

 I have trouble with identifying sparrows.  Most sparrows in Georgia are here in the winter and do not sing, making identification by sound practically impossible.  This combined with the fact that most of the time I only seem to get a 1/8 of a second chance to look at one before it lifts it’s middle feather up in the air and shouts “screw you!” makes sparrows especially frustrating to me and many other birders. 

But this opportunity to see a Bachman’s Sparrow up close redeemed the sparrow clan in my eyes.  In one feather I could see an earth tone rainbow of colors impossible to perceive though binoculars or a scope.  This is certainly the reason why sparrows are able to hide themselves so well from predators and well-intended birders alike.  Golden amber fades into yellow, fades into steel blue, and fades into white all within less than half a square inch of space. 

Before, I appreciated these birds for their rarity.  They are rare because long leaf pine forests are rare.  They evolved with burning forests, and when people suppressed forest fires, their habitat declined.  But now, with managed forests like those around Tall Timbers research station, they luckily have a place to live.

Now, after I have seen one in the hand, I appreciate them for their beauty.  It’s the type of beauty that I imagine would make more people become advocates for Long Leaf restoration, but that’s the idealist in me talking, not the rationalist.

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