While walking along our brick horseshoe path through the prairie garden, I heard a rustling in the grass. A squirrel searching for last season's acorns? A mouse? Perhaps a startled rabbit? Then, gold flashed between the stands of thick grass. I stayed still and silent for a few moments, and a small sparrow appeared. It jumped between last year's stalks of big bluestem and switch grass and scurried within the green bunches of newly emerging Indian grass.
We have the occasional European house sparrows, some song sparrows, and even white throated sparrows visiting our yard, but I knew this was different. It wasn't until I looked at the photos on my viewfinder that I recognized this as LeConte's sparrow (Ammospiza leconteii). This is not a species we had seen in our yard. In fact, I don't remember seeing it ever (it hadn't been checked off my lifetime bird book).
LeConte's sparrow is not often seen because it prefers thick vegetation. Instead of flying away when approached, LeConte's sparrows will scurry along the ground like rodents. If one were to be walking through an expansive prairie, you may not even notice this bird. In our case, the small section of tall vegetation (left thick over the winter) provided a perfect viewing location for this elusive species.
LeConte's sparrow overwinters along the Gulf Coast of the US and breed in the prairies of Canada. In Nebraska, our only chance to see them is during the migration. They will find a patch of prairie to feed on insects during the day as a way to fuel their nighttime journey north. Although our yard is hardly a true prairie, the little patch must have been welcoming enough for this sparrow to feel protected while gaining nourishment.
What can we do to protect birds like LeConte's sparrows (and increase our chances of seeing them)?
Keep vegetation up over winter. These are early migrants, and they need cover in April. If you cut down all your plants in fall or early winter, there will be nowhere for prairie specialist birds to hide while they forage.
Plant native plants that support abundant insects. Insects are rich in fats and protein and are necessary for fueling the spring migration northward. Regionally native plants have been shown to support more insect species and abundance. And, because these plants coevolved with the local insects, the insects rarely cause permanent damage to the plants.
Turn off exterior lights. Birds migrate at night, and exterior lights impede their navigation. Exterior lights also interfere with moth mating, and moth caterpillars are likely a critical food source for these and other bird species.
I hope you are as lucky as we are and have the opportunity to witness some prairie birds like LeConte's sparrow in your very own yards or city parks.