Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grasshopper Sparrow in the Grasslands

Yesterday I visited a couple of grassland sites in central New Jersey with my sister and parents. The two tracts are both managed by New Jersey Audubon, which has been monitoring the status of grassland bird species in New Jersey and working to preserve and improve habitat in an area that has undergone rapid changes to its landscape over the past decade.

Negri-Nepote Tract

The two sites are the Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve and the Griggstown Native Grassland Preserve, both in Somerset County. Negri-Nepote consists of about 100 acres of open fields surrounded by hedgerows and a small wooded tract. The grasslands preserve near Griggstown is larger (roughly 700 acres total) and has more varied habitat. In addition to the open fields, there are woodland areas and extensive hedgerows.

As we walked around the fields at Negri-Nepote, I could hear a faint, high-pitched buzz that sounded like an insect but more like a bird. Finally, near the end of the walk, we spotted the source - a grasshopper sparrow perched in the open on a short stalk. For several minutes we watched the sparrow as it repeatedly looked around and then tilted its head back to sing. Grasshopper sparrows are in the genus Ammodramus, whose members inhabit open habitats and share buzzy songs as their most notable characteristic.

Confused Trail Marker

The grasshopper sparrow was a life bird for all of us. My sister picked up another two life birds, a willow flycatcher at Negri-Nepote and a blue grosbeak at the Griggstown Grasslands. Other grassland specialists, such as bobolinks, did not make an appearance even though they had been seen there recently.
Griggstown Grasslands

In addition to the life birds, we saw a variety of other birds characteristic of a meadow / scrub habitat. There were singing field sparrows, prairie warblers, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, and indigo buntings at both sites. A small pond at Negri-Nepote had several killdeer and a greater yellowlegs.