• Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Rarest of the Rare? Henslow's Sparrow + October Bird Migrants in Central Park

Henslow's Sparrow, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 16 July 2013 by Deborah Allen

7 October 2020

Bird Notes: Just in case you missed it, a mega-rare Henlsow's Sparrow was found in Central Park on Saturday, 3 October. It was only the third record (ever) for Central Park. The previous ones were also in October, in 1992 and 2006. Regionally, this is a mega-rare nesting bird preferring tall grass prairie, a habitat that is rare in the eastern USA - more so now than 100 years ago (see Historical Notes below). Finally, now is the best time to see diversity in Central Park: sparrow numbers will be peaking soon; warblers still abound; and then there are the wild cards: cuckoos, hawks and even owls.

In this week's Historical Notes we include a number of historical (and more recent) articles about Henslow's Sparrow in the NYC-LI-tristate area. We present (a) the November 1901 discovery (and collection) of the Henslow's Sparrow on Shelter Island in eastern Long Island.; (b/c) the summer 1913 discovery of resident Henslow's Sparrows at Mastic, LI and then the May 1916 discovery of nests of this species in that location in Suffolk County, LI; (d/e) the May 1921 nesting of Henslow's Sparrow in southern Connecticut (d) - with a nice description of the habitat where the nest and four young were found, and in (e) a nest in coastal New Jersey in May 1894; (f) an article from June 2008 in the New York Post about the effort to make nesting habitat for Henslow's Sparrows and others near Marine Park, Brooklyn - don't expect a pro-sparrow story though!; and finally (f) the July 2013 trip by two NYC people to Indiana to photograph nesting Henslow's Sparrows, and the newspaper article written about the stunning discovery (of the two New York City people) near Bloomington. Who were they? One of them sounded just like a Henslow's Sparrow...

Henslow's Sparrow (above), Central Park on 3 October 2020 by Deborah Allen.

Lark Sparrow in Central Park (Compost Heap, North End) on 2 Oct. 2020 by Deborah Allen


Bird Walks for mid-October

All Walks @ $10/person - All walks in Central Park

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

1. Friday, 9 October at 8:30am - Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue. Walk down the front (main) steps and straight ahead by 150 feet to the area between the men's room (on the right/north) and ladies' room (left/south) $10

2. Saturday, 10 October at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

3. Sunday, 11 October at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

4. Monday, 12 October at 8:30am - Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic) at 72nd St. and Central Park West $10

If you do the 7:30am walk you can do the second (9:30am walk) for free. You get two for one. Weekend walks will continue through August and into December. Monday walks at 8:30am begin on Labor Day, 7 September and will continue through the end of October. Friday morning walks start 25 September and through October at least. What are you waiting for?

Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: rdcny@earthlink.net

Belted Kingfisher (first year male) at Turtle Pond, Central Park on 4 Oct. by Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (rdcny@earthlink.net). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.

Wild Turkey in Pelham Bay Park, Bronx (Bartow-Pell Mansion area)

5 October 2020 by Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Friday, 2 October 2020 (Conservatory Garden at 8:30am): Too many highlight birds to list, but we will briefly try: The ongoing Lark Sparrow at the Compost Heap (there are two as of 6 October - see photo above of one) we spotted, and watched for quite a while. I think I used the tape (recorded calls) to bring it in. I know I used the tape to lure in the Blue Grosbeak which kept circling us and perching nearby...and when we weren't watching these two rare ones, the three or four or five Lincoln's Sparrows were pretty good as well. There are some autumn migrations when I see one Lincoln's Sparrow for the entire season...we have been getting 1-4 on every walk. Today we had five. Finally there were 19 warbler species - the highest single day count for us of this September-October 2020 bird walk season.

Deborah's List of Birds for Friday, 2 October: https://tinyurl.com/yyycgkz4

Sat-Sunday, 3-4 October 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am): Please note: the bathrooms at the Boathouse are NOT open. However, we do pass two other sets of bathrooms on the walk. Saturday, 3 October: I was telling David Barret that we shouldn't go to Sparrow Rock because there has not been anything there recently...this was a big (big big) mistake: Janet Wooten discovered a Henslow's Sparrow there that morning, as well as a Yellow-breasted Chat. Oh well...instead we went to the nearby Pinetum and found a few Cape May Warblers (four total today). Deborah was the one who spotted the Broad-winged Hawk flying overhead; and credit the tape for getting us 15 warbler species, lots of Red-breasted Nuthatches and mucho other stuff too - see the list! On 4 October (Sunday) numbers of birds were declining but we had lots of fun with swooping Red-bellied Woodpeckers that we tried to catch in our hand as they dove at our heads. At this time of the year the resident Red-bellieds get very territorial. Why? There are other Red-bellied Woodpeckers migrating through and some are looking for a place to stop for a day, or even the next several months. Add to this Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers...the resident Red-bellieds get aggressive to all intruders including one person using sound recordings imitating Red-bellied Woodpeckers. It makes for a lot of fun to watch - and then we leave them alone after a couple of minutes (they need the exercise).

Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday, 3 October: https://tinyurl.com/y53jrmee

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 4 October: https://tinyurl.com/y6432d2a

Finally, Monday, 5 October was surprisingly good. The highlights being a nice Prairie Warbler at Strawberry Fields; a few Cape May Warblers (keep an eye out for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers - there is a Cape May Warbler with a sweet tooth lurking nearby); lots of Red-breasted Nuthatches as well as increasing numbers of Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches. Once the Sweetgum pods start to ripen/open we should see an influx of Black-capped Chickadees and some Pine Siskins.

Deborah's List of Birds for Monday, 5 October: https://tinyurl.com/y2eojet2

Vesper Sparrow in Central Park (Grassy Knoll area; North End); 19 Oct. 2008; Deborah Allen



Henslow's Sparrow on Shelter Island [Suffolk Co., LI], N.Y. On 20 November 1901, as I was crossing a rather barren, hilly pasture field, with a somewhat sparse covering of grass, I was much surprised on flushing a small brown sparrow, on which I had almost placed my foot in taking a step, which I at once recognized by the peculiar corkscrew flight as Ammodramus henslowi, having observed and taken numbers of them in the Southern States.

A snap shot at long range (my astonishment at seeing the species so unexpectedly having banished at first all thought of shooting) wounded, but failed to kill, and the bird dropped flutteringly into another bunch of grass, and was out of sight in an instant. Knowing their habits, I thought the specimen lost to me, but rushing to the spot and stamping quickly about, thanks to the scanty grass, the specimen was flushed again, and finally secured, making the first record for eastern Long Island. The bird was a female, and in good condition. I took an Ipswich [Savannah] Sparrow on the same day, and another Nov. 22, and on December 18, a Lapland Longspur.

W.W. WORTHINGTON, Shelter Island Heights, New York.


Henslow's and Savanna Sparrows on Long Island [1913] - Great South Bay, Long Island, is a large body of water stretching far to the east from Fire Island Inlet, its only opening to the ocean. At its eastern end it becomes comparatively narrow, and then broadens again into the East or Moriches Bay, a brackish body of water, with negligible rise and fall of tide. On July 6, 1912, at Mastic, in company with Mrs. Nichols, the writer paddled in a canoe from the narrows between the two bays, up a small creek full of mud shallows and turtles, to a wet, fresh meadow where pink orchids were growing among the grasses. On one of some more-or-less isolated bushes in this meadow was a little round Sparrow singing its peculiar unfamiliar song, sque-zeek! Closer approach identified it with certainty as the Henslow's Sparrow. The writer has no doubt that it was breeding, though the species is little, if at all, known as a breeding bird on Long Island.

On 13 June 1913, also at Mastic, the writer stopped to examine some Grasshopper Sparrows at a little open golf course bordering on Moriches Bay. He chanced to bring his binoculars to bear on a bird which was chipping from the summit of a fence-post, evidently with nest or young close by, and was surprised to find it a Savanna Sparrow, a species whose breeding on Long Island is little known. It was examined closely, leaving no question as to its identity. On July 5 we landed at the same point and found two of them. They were worried by our presence, and we started to search for the nest, when one flew to a patch of bare sand and pointed out a young bird of the species.It had much the same sharp marking as the adult, its breast was strongly yellowish, sharply striped with black, and its tail squarish and ridiculously short. It sat on its heels on the sand, its two pale-colored legs stretched out, and, when pursued, flew low and swiftly, but rather weakly, would drop into the low growth and disappear, and was finally cornered against the water and caught in the hand. There could be no mistake in the identity.

Evidence of the presence of these two lesser Sparrows in the Long Island breeding avifauna seems worth placing on record. They will probably be found to breed here more commonly than has sometimes been supposed. John Treadwell Nichols, Englewood, N. J.

Song Sparrow in Central Park at the Wildflower Meadow (North End) on 31 October 2008 Deborah Allen

Henslow's Sparrow. Passerherbulus henslowi henslowi [1916]. For several years we have been aware that the Henslow's Sparrow was summering rather commonly at Mastic near the landward edge of the meadows where these are quite fresh, but know of no nests having been found until May 30, 1916, when one of the writers in company with Mr. Charles H. Rogers flushed a Henslow's Sparrow from a nest with eggs, in a dry field with sparse grass about a stone's throw from where the land dropped away to a tree-bordered creek. The birds had been seen in the vicinity for about two weeks previously, and when first noticed were assumed to be migrants, the locality being far removed from and quite unlike that in which the bird usually summers. The young hatched, but were found dead in the nest on June 10, very likely as a result of heavy rain. The situation was an exposed one, probably more so than that to which the species is accustomed. In this connection we note that Meadowlarks and Grasshopper Sparrows which commonly nest in such places with scant grass, build arched nests, whereas that of the Henslow's Sparrow was perfectly open.

John T. Nichols, Robert C. Murphy and Ludlow Griscom


The Nesting of Henslow's Sparrow in Southern Connecticut [1921]. On 19 May 1921, while observing the migration, then at its height, I found a male Henslow's Sparrow (Passerherbulus henslowi henslowi). The bird was in a field near the Hemlock's Reservoir, Fairfield, Conn. At the time I was in the company of five others, Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Waldo of Bridgeport, Mr. and Mrs. L. F. Glynn of Fairfield, and Mr. Frank Novack of the Fairfield Bird Sanctuary. All of us observed the bird from a very short distance and in a clear light. I was first attracted to it by the song, the short one that has been written "fieeziek." To me it sounded more like "tililip." I made a record of it, which, unless one considers a single "ehebee" of the least Flycatcher a song, is the shortest bird song I have recorded, occupying but two-fifths of a second.

The bird was not in the sort of locality in which it is usually described as nesting, so that no thought of a possible nest entered my head at the time. Returning to this area alone on 4 June 1920, I found the bird still there, so that the possibility of finding its nest occurred to me. The area had been the usual typical dry field, with sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) and the common white daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) the most conspicuous forms of vegetation at that season. The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, however had planted the area, a few years ago, with white pine (Pinus strobus). These trees had reached a height of two to four feet, and the bird was first found singing in their tops. Hunting about not far from the tree in which the male sang, I heard a slight sparrow "tsip." I should ordinarily have passed the note for that of a Field Sparrow, but being on the lookout for Henslow's Sparrow I thought I detected a slightly different quality in the note, and soon found it a second Henslow's Sparrow, evidently the female, for the male was still singing where I had first observed him.

I sat down to watch this bird, and waited for nearly an hour. The bird was evidently disturbed at my presence, and kept up a continual "tsipp~ing," balancing herself in the top of a pine, and facing a strong wind that was blowing so hard as to almost unseat her. Little by little she approached a spot about which my suspicions centered, and finally ceased her "tsip" and dropped to the ground. I went to the spot and found the nest, with four young birds, so well grown that they left at my approach, and I was only able to catch one. This bird was essentially like its parents in most particulars, but had a pale gray colored down adhering to the feathers of the head and upper back. The down was so light in color that it may have been white when the birds were first hatched. The nest was in a hollow of the grass on the ground. It was not under one of the Pines as I had rather expected it would be, but was more than two feet from the nearest pine. It was made entirely of grasses, those of the lining finer than the others. On the south side it was roughly arched, like the nest of a Grasshopper Sparrow, but so crudely that I did not feel sure whether the birds had actually constructed the arch, or only built the nest in the shelter of a tuft of dead grass that already happened to be there.

The young were evidently expert at hiding in the grass, for after releasing the bird I had caught I could neither find it again, nor any of the other three birds. This is my first experience with this species, though farther north in Connecticut it is reported locally to be common. On my two visits the male sang only the short song, so that I have yet to hear the longer song described for this species. ARETAS A. SAUNDERS, Fairfield, Conn.


Ammodramus henslowii. HENSLOW’S SPARROW Nesting in New Jersey. [1895]. While engaged in collecting a few shore birds on the 22nd of May, 1894, upon Peck's Beach, I ran across a nest of this Sparrow. It was placed at the brink of a small sand dune, the top of which was about six feet above the level of the beach. The nest was sunken flush with the sand and directly against the roots of a solitary bunch of grass. The bird did not leave the nest until I had approached within three feet and almost touched her breast with my finger, when she flew to the edge of a thicket of bayberry and holly bushes some distance away, and, while protesting vigorously, did not come near or call up her mate. The nest, of bleached sedge grass with a lining of fine grass stems, contained four partly incubated eggs of a very light greenish to grayish white, thickly speckled and spotted with chestnut and hazel, with a very little vandyke brown here and there. The markings were confluent at the larger end in two and at the smaller end of the remaining two eggs. One egg also shows many olive gray shell markings. They measure 0.71 x 0.63, 0.70 X 0.62, 0.70 x 0.62, 0.70 x 0.62, and are short ovate to oval.

FRANK L. BURNS, Berwyn, Chester Co., Pennsylvania.

White-crowned Sparrow at Sparrow Rock, 5 October 2006 by Deborah Allen



June 2, 2008


Taxpayers are being forced to shell out $15 million on the off chance that a rare sparrow will come back to roost at a former city landfill overlooking Brooklyn's Marine Park.

The trash-strewn White Island is quietly being converted into a habitat for the little bird called Henslow's Sparrow, which hasn't been spotted in the Big Apple in more than a decade, The Post has learned.

The effort to turn the weed-choked spot into beautiful grasslands came in response to promises officials made in the mid-1990s when allowing a developer to wipe out the sparrow's habitat to build a massive shopping center near Starrett City in 2002. Ida Sanoff, chairwoman of the environmental group Natural Resources Protective Association, said she's glad the city is finally cleaning up the 70-acre site - also known as "Mau Island" - near Jamaica Bay but doubts the project will bring the inconspicuous bird back.

"What are they going to do? Put up a sign saying: 'Hello, sparrows. Beautiful nesting places here!'?" she said.

The original decision to clear out what was then Vandalia Dunes to make way for the $192 million Gateway Shopping Center infuriated environmentalists because about 56 the 93 acres of the dunes were significant habitats for all sorts of species, including the rare sparrow.

But officials felt it was in the city's best interest to have the hundreds of new jobs the shopping center brought, and the plan was to replace the 56 acres four miles away at the former garbage dump.

Now, more than 10 years later, the city Parks Department has finally begun recreating the sparrow's habitat. Workers last month began spraying herbicides to kill weeds that will be replaced by beautiful grasslands.

"I guess we are following the lead of the movie 'Field of Dreams,' in that if we build it, they will come. But I wouldn't bet on it," admitted Mike Fellar, the city Parks Department's chief naturalist.

But Fellar said the project is important - even if the Henslow's sparrow stays away.

"We're not spending all this money just for a single bird. We're creating a more sustainable ecosystem, which will bring more desirable plant and bird species to the island," he said.

Geoffrey Croft, who heads the watchdog group New York City Park Advocates, blasted the city for killing off not just weeds, but some endangered plant life, while spraying the herbicides. He also questioned why the project began without community input.

But Fellar said these same trees and shrubs also grow along 14 acres at White Island the city is leaving alone, and he predicted the endangered plants would eventually quadruple on the island through the job.

The National Audubon Society estimates about 50,000 Henslow's sparrows worldwide, down 80 percent from 1966. The bird's nearest known habitat is in western New York upstate.

Fellar said it's unlikely that the public will have access to White Island once it's cleaned up - despite it being classified as parkland - because officials want the habitat kept pristine for the wildlife.

White Island was last used as an active landfill in the 1950s. Today, its shores are filled with construction and demolition debris and trash. The project also calls for stabilizing the island's eroding garbage-strewn banks.

Although no timetable is set to complete the project, Parks Department spokeswoman Jama Adams said the city "is working closely with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on structural and public safety issues" and hopes to finish the project "as quickly as possible."

Henslow's Sparrow; 31 May 2017 at Shawangunk Grasslands, Ulster Co., NY

Deborah Allen

Birders from all over arrive for rare sight

The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, INDIANA Frank Gray

Published: 25 July 2013

I can't tell the difference between a sparrow and a wren, much less the difference between a Henslow's sparrow and some other kind of sparrow, but the presence of the rare bird at a local nature preserve has bird watchers worked up. Apparently, at a place called Arrowhead Prairie on Aboite Road, a top local birder, Jim Haw, spotted what is being called the largest concentration of nesting Henslow's sparrows in northern Indiana. There were six of them.

This, I'm told, is a big deal because the bird, though it isn't endangered, is scarce enough to be classified as a species of concern.

Just how big a deal is it, really? Big enough that a noted birder from New York City, a guy who is a guide for birders in Central Park, traveled here with a photographer a few days ago to get a glimpse of the bird. It was reminiscent of a scene from the book and movie "The Big Year," about birders who travel the world trying to spot as many different bird species as possible.

This one revelation has led to a whole new set of revelations for the people who run the Little River Wetlands Project, a swampy 716-acre preserve near Engle Road, and the Arrowhead Prairie and Arrowhead Marsh.

Apparently, birders are coming from all over the state and some other states and staying in a motel next to the preserve to get a glimpse of some of the 200 or so species that hang out there. Arrowhead Prairie and Arrowhead Marsh, which are across the road from each other, are only about 10 minutes away, an added bonus for birders.

"It's fascinating that a sophisticated birder from New York City would come all the way out there to see these nondescript birds," said Renee Wright, communications director for the Little River Wetlands Project, who admits she's not a big birder herself.

"When I first saw the post (about a rare bird on a birding website) I thought, `Isn't that interesting,' " Wright said. "It took two birders from New York to make me think it might be a big deal. "It's very gratifying. We've worked very hard to build habitat. This is a sign that we know it's working. These species are coming back and setting up shop."

Joe Huguenard, executive director at Little River, who describes himself as a reptile guy and not a birder, was just as surprised as everyone else. He said the goal of establishing the Little River and Arrowhead preserves was all about restoring historic wetlands. Nobody ever thought they'd also be creating a haven for birders.

"We both live here and we're just finding out about it (Henslow's sparrow), and a guy from Manhattan has already been here," Huguenard said.

"It's like the canary in the mine," Huguenard said. "It's an indicator of what's happening. (The habitat) is coming back.

"That little bird is our little canary that says the mine is now safe."

Frank Gray reflects on his and others' experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG. Copyright (c) 2013 The Journal Gazette


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

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Himalayan Vulture pursued by a Large-billed Crow in the foothills of the

Himalayan Mountains, Nepal (near Pokhara), 12 November 2012

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