The twitch that almost wasn’t
As far as vagrants go, Cassin’s Sparrow is hardly a flashy one. The little Peucaea (nee Aimophila) sparrow is brown and streaky, like all members of both its old and new genus, every bit a bird of the dry scrubby southern plains where it’s normally found. It is not, fairly obviously, a bird you’d expect to find in North Carolina, not only because the nearest part of its range to North Carolina is 1000 miles away, but because it’s so unremarkable as to be nearly impossible to pick out even if present. That’s just what Gil Miller did though, as he covered his regular route through the Sandhills near the South Carolina border. He heard something odd, made some recordings and notes, and before you knew it all the big listers in the state were beating their way to Scotland County to add a new, and completely unexpected, species to their state lists.
I admit, I was not immediately drawn to be among them. I realize that this is grounds for confiscation of my twitcher card, but despite the fact that I was obviously amazed at the fact that a Cassin’s Sparrow had made it to North Carolina and impressed by Gil Miller’s savvy at identifying the bird and having the confidence to report it, I wasn’t really feeling the hour and half drive to the hinterlands far too near our southern neighbor than I generally like to go. Besides, I didn’t really feel like I was missing much, especially when I had a full day of birding in the Triangle planned.
Until Ali Iyoob, a young birder from Raleigh, put out a message asking for a ride to the bird. “Why not?”, I thought. And before long I had Matt Daw and Robert Meehan along for the ride too. Might as well get a life bird, right?
Well, I was glad I did. The bird was spectacular, in the way that a small, brownish, streaky bird with an elaborate song can be. We pulled up and heard it as soon as we opened the car doors. Second later we were all on it.
The bird had been secretive in the two days since its presence had been made known, but that was apparently no longer an issue. It sang from a patch of dry twigs and frequently made flights high into the air, fluttering back to its perch while singing, a behavior called “skylarking” common to open country birds. Who knows who it thought it was displaying to, but the group of birders watching from the dirt road were as enthusiastic an audience as any female Cassin’s Sparrow, though obviously less appealing from the sparrow’s point of view.
There were other birds in the area too, lots of Eastern Kingbirds and Blue Grosbeaks and a couple singing Chats. I flushed a pair of Northern Bobwhite from a path near the field, and the Red-headed Woodpeckers were chattering away in a stand of burned pines.
This Cassin’s Sparrow is only the most remarkable of a amazingly remarkable run of rarities in North Carolina lately, likely brought in by the massive storms that passed through the area last week. Strong west to east weather systems coinciding with peak migration in the Midwest may yet drop a couple more surprises on us before the season is out. There has also been a Chestnut-colored Longspur down in New Hanover County (the southeast coast) and the second amazing bird in this very Cassin’s Sparrow field, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that was seen and photographed for two minutes before disappearing never to be refound (we missed it by 10 minutes! The less said about that, the better).
Matt and Ali are serious county listers like myself, so we added irds to our day list greedily, even going so far as to drive a short distance into more traditional Sandhills habitat to pick up the classic Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and a singing Bachman’s Sparrow (how often do you get two Peucaea sparrows on a day list east of the Mississippi? Never?). On the way home, we pulled off at some promising looking side roads to look for migrants, adding several common warblers to chronically underbirded counties like Lee and Hoke. I added over 100 total ticks to North Carolina on the day, a nice bonus to what was already a great day, despite the big miss hanging over our heads.
But no one can complain too much, the Cassin’s Sparrow was spectacular, far from the streaky bird from Dullsville, USA, I was expecting, and I even added a couple bird to the Triangle Year. Cliff Swallow and Hooded Warbler. Win/win/win.
I guess the moral is to never miss the opportunity for a twitch. It’s almost always worth it.