We conducted our 8th annual SparrowFest on Saturday February 2 on various portions of the Balcones Canyonlands NWR and nearby environs.
The weather was unseasonably warm, with afternoon highs in the mid-70's, but we were able to find some good birds.
We found 17 species of native sparrows (18 if you count the single Harris's Sparrow reported by a single participant on the morning trip to the Eckhardt tract). This is slightly below average in terms of the number of sparrow species we typically encounter. Our best years have produced 20 sparrow species for the day; our worst, I believe, was 16 sparrow species for the day. We usually find 18 or 19 for the day.
It is not unusual for some participants and leaders to see 17 or 18 sparrow species for the day (this does not include House Sparrows or longspurs, neither of which are typically encountered on SparrowFest). My personal best day was 19 sparrow species. I had 16 on the day of the festival this year. I tell sparrow class participants that on any given day in "sparrow season" in the Austin checklist area we have 20 native sparrow species in the area. Some years we get "bonus birds," including Lark Bunting and Green-tailed Towhee, both of which we had on Saturday the 2nd.
Since we had 2 bonus birds, but only had 18 sparrow species for the day, we must have missed some of the "regulars."
One of our misses this year was White-throated Sparrow, which is never numerous or widespread in the locales we visit on SparrowFest.
I am sometimes able to find a few of these along Cow Creek Road, but not this year.
Another of our misses was Swamp Sparrow, which is one of the hardest regularly-occurring native sparrows to find on the refuge.
We sometimes get this bird along the creek on the Eckhardt tract, but we missed it there and elsewhere this year.
Another miss was Canyon Towhee. There once was a resident pair at the Flying X Ranch, but they have been gone for about 5 years.
Peaceful Springs, a private property near the Flying X, has a couple of pairs of Canyon Towhees, but we are no longer able to visit this property for the festival. There are one or two other refuge tracts that have resident Canyon Towhees, but they weren't part of the itinerary this year, and visiting those locations might mean missing out on something else.
Our most flagrant miss this year was Dark-eyed Junco. We often have pretty good numbers of this bird on several different refuge tracts, but they can be spotty, and I don't think this is the first year we have missed it. It seems to me that DEJU numbers are down area-wide this year, perhaps because of the mild winter and relative absence of snow cover in areas to our north.
Some of the good news is that Lincoln's Sparrows were back this winter in fairly good numbers, though still slightly below average in my estimation.
We completely missed LISP last year, which was an absolute shocker to me. I think that most trips this year had good looks at Lincoln's Sparrows and opportunities to compare to its Melospiza congener, Song Sparrow. We had a very good batch of Song Sparrows this year, with lots of opportunities to study it on every trip I think.
Another bit of good news is that one of the real stars of the sparrow world, LeConte's Sparrow, was back in pretty good numbers after being very scarce last year. It appears that all SparrowFest participants had good looks at LeConte's Sparrows, which is one of the things we pride ourselves on.
Interestingly, Zonotrichia numbers appear down area-wide. It's not too surprising that we missed White-throated Sparrow and almost completely missed Harris's Sparrow (which is present in small numbers most years). But the paucity of sightings of White-crowned Sparrows was surprising. I think we had one or more trips that completely missed WCSP, which is very unusual. I believe the mild winter may have something to do with this, too, but I can't prove it.
One other interesting phenomenon this year was the low number of Savannah Sparrows in most areas visited. Vesper Sparrows far outnumbered Savannahs this year, and it is usually the other way around. I don't think this phenomenon is true area-wide, as it seems to me that Savannah Sparrow numbers east of the Edwards Plateau are about normal this year.
The refuge and other nearby areas are still suffering from the multi-year drought, but not as bad as last year.
We do still need rain, so keep that in your prayers.
It takes a village to do SparrowFest.
I will append a species list for the day at the end of the note, but I first want to thank some of the many people who help make SparrowFest possible.
First, I want to thank my co-leaders, beginning with Bill "Mr. Spizella" Reiner, who has been with me for all 8 SparrowFests.
Bill always finds some great birds, and this year was no different. He found a couple of Lark Buntings on the day of SparrowFest, and I believe that all of his trip participants were able to see at least one of these "bonus" birds. He also found a singing Black-throated Sparrow at the Flying X after lunch while leading his "grass walk," and all participants on the grass walk were able to see this handsome specialty bird (all this while Randy and I were tromping around nearby trying to find exactly that bird). Bill also located our other bonus bird, Green-tailed Towhee, on the Flying X during a scouting trip a week or so before the festival. The bird was relocated on the day of the festival, and was a new addition to our cumulative SparrowFest list.
Bill is also an outstanding teacher, and people are always excited about what they have learned on an outing with Bill.
Thanks also to Jeff "Pretty Boy" Patterson (or is it "Towhee Boy?"). Jeff relocated Bill's Green-tailed Towhee (in a different location from where Bill originally found it) during a scouting trip on Friday, then helped me find it Friday afternoon, then found it again for his Flying X trip on Saturday morning. Way to go Jeff! Efforts like this are part of what make SparrowFest special. Jeff teaches a class on bird vocalizations for Travis Audubon, and his presence adds a special dimension to SparrowFest.
Many thanks also to Randy "pink-note" Pinkston of Temple. Randy's knowledge of birds is encyclopedic, his enthusiasm for sparrows rivals my own, and he is one of the best field birders in the state, so I feel privileged to have him with us at SparrowFest. Randy accompanied me much of the day, and it was a real pleasure to have his expertise available for our trip participants.
Thanks also to the refuge manager Deborah Holle for allowing us access to so many parts of the refuge, and to all of the refuge staff who help us in many different ways. Special thanks to the fire crews for NOT starting any prescribed burns during any of our SparrowFest trips. That's one of many reasons that it's good to coordinate these things with the refuge office and management.
Thanks also to the Friends of Balcones Refuge, including Sandi Gilchrist and President Dub Lyon and all of the other volunteers who help cook, clean and coordinate. Special thanks to Cathy Harrington, who brings her husband John to run the kitchen, and who does so many things to make SparrowFest run efficiently that I can't even begin to list them all. Suffice it to say that without Cathy we would have trouble making SparrowFest the success that it is.
Now for the birds.
In addition to the sparrows mentioned above, some of the other interesting finds were 3 Sage Thrashers on Jeff's trip to the Simons Tract, a Merlin which Randy identified as it flew off a perch over the Flying X entry road, and a flock of Brewer's Blackbirds on Bill's trip to Simons.
An annotated birdlist follows:
American Wigeon - 12 - Cow Creek
Great Blue Heron - 1
Northern Harrier - 4 - Unusual to have this many.
Merlin - 1 - perched briefly in tree along entry road to Flying X
Sandhill Crane - 32 - soaring over Flying X Friday afternoon
Greater Roadrunner - 1 - Flying X
Great Horned Owl
Western Scrub-Jay - Cow Creek
American Crow - Eckhardt
Winter Wren - 1 - Cow Creek during a Friday afternoon scouting session
Sage Thrasher - 3 - Simons tract
Green-tailed Towhee - 1 - fairly cooperative bird on Flying X
Spotted Towhee - modest numbers in multiple locations
Eastern Towhee - 1 - Cooperative female on Cow Creek
Rufous-crowned Sparrow - multiple trips
Chipping Sparrow - fewer than usual
Field Sparrow - many, but lower numbers than usual
Vesper Sparrow - everywhere
Lark Sparrow - Cow Creek and Simons
Black-throated Sparrow - 4 - 3 on Simons and 1 at Flying X
Lark Bunting - 2 - Flying X
Savannah Sparrow - far fewer than usual
Grasshopper Sparrow - good numbers multiple locations
Le Conte's Sparrow - everyone had good looks at this handsome SparrowFest specialty
Fox Sparrow - Simons and Cow Creek
Song Sparrow - good numbers
Lincoln's Sparrow - fair numbers, but at least they are back this year
Harris's Sparrow - 1 - seen by one participant on Eckhardt
White-crowned Sparrow - lower numbers than usual
Brewer's Blackbird - Simons tract
65 species, if I count correctly.
It was a good day to be a Sparrowhawk!
If you are interested in signing up for SparrowFest next year, the best thing to do probably is join Friends of Balcones NWR.
By doing so, you will help the refuge, and you will get the earliest notice possible of next year's SparrowFest (in addition to all the other good stuff that the Friends organize on and for the refuge). Only about 60% of land authorized for the refuge has actually been purchased or placed into conservation easements, so the refuge and Friends still need our help to complete originally planned acquisitions.
Cathy will probably send out notices in early December, and we will do SparrowFest again in late January or early February of next year.
Until then, good birding ya'll,
Byron Stone, Austin