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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Of the meadows

Today I was very excited to catch up with an old friend.  

Before moving to California, I spent some time monitoring Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) in Rhode Island.  In 2005 I heard a Grasshopper Sparrow singing in a coastal grassland near Dillon Beach.  But today was the first time I've seen one in Sonoma County, very close to Bodega Head.

I was trying to photograph a butterfly in an open grassland and this sparrow flushed, flew to a nearby shrub, and started singing.  Although they breed along the West Coast from British Columbia to Baja California,  Grasshopper Sparrows are uncommon residents in Sonoma County, and they're currently listed as a Species of Special Concern in California. 

In the next photo, look for the following characteristics:  relatively small overall size, large bill, short tail, unstreaked breast, and yellow lores (patch between the bill and the eye).

The next two images were taken from farther away and are a bit out-of-focus, but they show a few more important field marks.  

Below, look for the bright yellow edge of the wing:

And with this next view, you can see the flattened head and pale central crown stripe:

The common name, Grasshopper Sparrow, comes from their song.  They sound a bit like a buzzy insect. (I started wondering if this is a general reference, or if there really is a certain grasshopper with a matching song?)

The scientific name reveals something about their habitat use.  "Ammodramus" means "to run on the sand" — I'm guessing this was not meant to be a strict interpretation, but a broader description of how these sparrows tend to run on the ground (and therefore are often found in grasslands that have scattered patches of bare ground).  The species name, "savannarum," means "of the meadows," and refers to their use of large open grasslands with sparse shrub cover.

Grasshopper Sparrows are just one of many reasons to preserve our native coastal prairies!

P.S.  If you'd like to hear it, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a good example of a Grasshopper Sparrow song.

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