Savanna sparrows sing sweetly

Posted May 22, 2009, at 11:15 p.m.

The grasslands were bathed in early spring sunshine. In the distance small, puffy clouds scudded across a patch of clear, blue sky. Crickets chirped, and at first the only other sound was that of the breeze rustling the foliage of low-growing plants and shrubs.

This was my first venture to the Kennebunk Plains, courtesy of a visiting friend who had previously lived in the area. We were carefully scanning the grassland and the bordering tree line for birds when a strident, somewhat buzzy song broke out behind us.

The singer was a sparrow-that much was obvious at first glance. It perched near the top of a small sapling and continued to sing boisterously, offering us the chance to study it at length.

Most notable was its streaked upper chest and sides, which brought to mind a song sparrow; but I knew that wasn’t what we were looking at. Its yellow eye stripe and song — tsit tsit tsit tseeeee-tsaaaay — proclaimed it as a savanna sparrow.

Savannah sparrows breed throughout much of North America, as well as a small portion of Central America, and winter in Central America and the southern United States. They use a variety of open habitats — tundra, meadows, saltmarsh grasslands — for breeding, building neatly-woven nests on the ground and concealing them with the surrounding vegetation.

According to the “Birds of North America,” species account, Breeding Bird Surveys have shown a decline in savanna sparrow populations. This is a common theme for grassland birds, as changing agricultural practices and outright habitat loss continue to have a major impact on their numbers.

As we listened to the sparrow, a clear song drifted across the meadow to us. The sweet, lilting melody could only have come from an eastern meadowlark.

In vain did we search for a glimpse of this bird. Its bright yellow chest and habit of picking prominent perches from which to sing should have made it an easy target, but this was not the case. At times, also, the song had a ventriloquial quality, seeming to come first from one direction, then from another.

To be honest, we did get distracted by the appearance of another sparrow. This bird was infinitely more cooperative, often venturing out onto the wide trail to forage, giving us perfect front, side and rear views. We had plenty of opportunity to note plumage patterns, such as the scapular chestnut patch on its wings and the white outer tail feathers; these helped identify it as a vesper sparrow.

The term vesper refers to a religious service held in the late afternoon or evening; this sparrow got the name for its habit of singing into the twilight hours, long after other birds have fallen silent. Early naturalists have made note of its beautiful song, as have modern ornithologists, as is evident by this poetic passage in the otherwise scientific BNA species account:

“Across grasslands, open valleys and arid steppes, the beauty and exuberance of the setting sun is often matched by Vesper Sparrows, as they fill the evening with sweet song while affirming the passing day and appealing for safe passage through the coming night.”

According to the BNA, Vesper sparrow populations have declined in the east; as are other ground-nesting birds, the vesper is also vulnerable to changing agricultural practices and habitat loss. It is listed as a species of special concern here in Maine.

Luckily, Kennebunk Plains — formerly used for blueberry cultivation — is now owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy, and is managed to protect the vesper sparrow and other grassland nesting birds, as well as other wildlife and plant species.

As we left the Plains trail and headed back to the parking lot, the song of the vesper sparrow followed us — a reminder that such places need to be protected.

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