Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grassland restored: Kestrels and secretive sparrows at Negri-Nepote

Birding has taken a back seat for us over the past couple of weekends, given the usual summer lull enforced by avian behavior. After warbling and chirping their hearts out looking for mates, songbirds have been spending most of their time on the nest, collecting food and raising their young, leaving their human admirers to wait for the fast-approaching southbound shorebird migration.

Negri Nepote Native Grassland Preserve, Franklin, NJ Hidden New Jersey
The fields and pond at Negri-Nepote.
Even with that reality facing us, if we try hard enough there's always the possibility of locating birds that have somehow evaded us up until this point in the year. Thus, Ivan and I decided to make a return visit to Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve in Franklin Township, Somerset County to find Grasshopper sparrows. Consistent with their name, members of this species make a buzzy, insect-like sound and nest in meadows, pastures and other expanses where grasses provide sufficient cover. Given how much of that kind of habitat has been lost to development in the state, the Grasshopper sparrow is considered threatened as a breeding species in New Jersey. According to the online eBird tool, other birders had seen them at Negri-Nepote recently, creating one of our best chances to see them this year.

This particular spot is especially nice, given that it's on a narrow road and you have to drive past the Trojan cow farm to get there. That said, it's been a while since we've been to Negri-Nepote. Longtime readers might remember our original visit to this former farm turned sanctuary, when we failed to find the reported Dickcissels but harvested a bumper crop of ticks for our troubles. We hoped our luck would be different this time: more of our sought bird and no pesky blood-sucking arachnids.

Photo by Greg Hume (wikimedia commons)
American Kestrel (Photo
by Greg Hume)
We arrived to find we were apparently the only humans to consider a visit on what was setting up to be a glorious day. Seemingly the only birds on the wing that morning, Tree swallows zoomed and swerved overhead and past us as we walked along the perimeter of the field. If the sparrows were there, they weren't saying much.

Then we noticed something a bit bigger jetting around with what seemed to be more purpose: an American kestrel.

Well, actually two American kestrels, with more apparently in the works. We watched as the small raptor (a.k.a. the sparrow hawk) zoomed back to a nest box planted on a pole near the center of the preserve, a few yards from a pond that looks rather like a big puddle. Not long afterward, she was back outside, aloft and looking for a meal as she was hassled by a Red-winged blackbird. Ignoring the aspiring tormentor, the kestrel perched on a power line stretched across the field, perhaps watching and waiting for suitable prey to pass below.

Kestrels are always a treat to see, not only because of their awesome flight abilities, but because they're on the threatened species list in New Jersey. Like Grasshopper sparrows, they're best suited to open grassy fields and seek out insect meals, though they're also content to make a meal of smaller birds and mammals like voles. And though they're unable to dig out their own nest areas as woodpeckers do, kestrels lay their eggs and raise their young in natural or man-made cavities. You'll sometimes see kestrel boxes at the edges of cultivated fields, placed by farmers hoping for some natural pest control. The Negri-Nepote box, as I later found out, has had residents for a couple of years, thanks to the combined stewardship of the township, county and New Jersey Audubon.

After observing the kestrels for a few minutes, we continued our walk down a mown path across the field, enjoying the black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and other blossoms amid the grasses. It seemed that the life around us was waking up a little, or maybe we were just hearing things we hadn't before. Song sparrows called out from the perimeter, along with a striking male Indigo bunting as the Tree swallows continued their aerial strafing. The place didn't seem buggy at all, but they were hard at work.

Then, an insect-like buzz caught our attention from deep within the higher grasses. Was it a loud bug, or was it a Grasshopper sparrow? We had no way of knowing unless the secretive bird rose above the tall blades, and even then we'd have to identify it on the fly. These guys spend much of their time on the ground, and besides, there was virtually no place for one to perch. And I'd have to hope Ivan saw the bird the same time as I did, because there was no way I'd differentiate it, in flight, from any number of other somewhat similar-looking sparrows I haven't learned to ID yet (Getting good at identifying sparrows is somewhat like learning Middle English - an impressive achievement, but way too complicated for me to tackle without abandoning all of my other interests. To prove my point, I found this guide to be especially amusing, as it's two years old and the author appears to have given up.)

Buzz.... buzzz..... and flight! A small brown bird - right size, right shape - emerged from the vegetation, rising a couple of feet above the grass tips and darting a few yards to the right. Then it dove back down, impossible to see. But, as Ivan confirmed, it was our quarry: the Grasshopper sparrow. 

I, for one, was completely satisfied, and I think Ivan was, too, at least until Sunday morning, when he read the mocosocoBirds report of birds seen in Morris and Somerset counties the day before. Just a few hours after we left Negri-Nepote, another birder had spotted a Dickcissel perched in the trees not far from the path.  

It may be our perpetual luck never to see a Dickcissel there, but one good thing came out of the venture: the tick curse seems to have lifted. Apart from one hanger-on I found on my pants leg before getting back into the car, we left unscathed. That's gotta be worth something.

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