As I’ve stated in one of my previous posts October is my favorite month, and it’s not just the temperatures cooling off and the changing of the leaves, or the apple cider, or the autumn festivals, or warm soup on a chilly evening. It’s time for the return of the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni), as they pass through our area on their way south. These beautifully colored sparrows are so different from our everyday, run-of-the-mill little brown sparrows that we as birders need to use extra effort to seek them out for ourselves. A small , short tailed sparrow just measuring 5 inches with the mix of rufous, orange, gray and brown help camouflage this bird nicely as it skulks deep within thick grasses, reeds, and cattails. Easily flushed from underfoot as you hike along, their weak flight low to the ground is a good indication to most Ammodramus species. And such was the case last Saturday morning as I drove to Ellis Lake as word got around that the “Nelson’s” are returned.
Completed in 1849, the Miami-Erie Canal once flowed from Toledo to Cincinnati with a depth of 4 feet and 40 feet across at water level with a 10 foot wide towpath. Remnants of this once grand canal is still evident at Ellis lake and the neighboring Gilmore Ponds Preserve. Now with the passing of time it’s no more than a small stream that runs parallel between Ellis lake and the train tracks. However enough water still flows through the canal that portions of it still over into a agricultural field creating a small riparian area perfect for Nelson’s Sparrows, and last year a LeConte’s Sparrow. This water course was my final destination.
If it wasn’t for previous foot traffic indicating where to go, you’d be following a deer path through some tall weeds as you picked your way in the direction of the canal. As you near the area where the Nelson’s were located water appears on your right and in front, which forces you to turn left and our perfect little patch of Nelson habitat.
There was a nice steady breeze which was bothersome. Since Nelson’s skulk around in the dense vegetation ‘ll normally focus in on unusual twitches of cattails, grass. However with this breeze we already have enough movements that missing something unusual is a good possibility. As I crept forward I spooked a small bird with that weak flight. It dropped into a clump of cattails about 20 feet in front of me. I stopped and waited, and waited. Some small cattails twitched about. I focused into the clump and was able to see it’s little head and nothing else. Taking a picture was out of the question. Then it flew across to the other side of the water where I was able to get some good looks at it, just not any good photographs.
I spent a couple of hours walking back and forth but as the morning waned into afternoon all bird activity seemed to shut off like a faucet. Time for lunch!