I had a very specific bird in mind when I visited Butner Gamelands with Mark and Scott on this cold Sunday morning. It’s a bird that frequents the edges of vast fields and really only shows up around here one or two solid weeks out of the year. Butner’s got loads of fields, plus it’s the right time of year, I should be able to find it pretty easily right? If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ll know the answer is something along the lines of “Hell no! How could you even think something so asinine?!”
In all reality, Butner was full of birds. All of our sparrows have already returned for the winter, including some of the less common ones in a pair of nice-looking Savannah Sparrows. There were large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, plus wintery stuff like Kinglets, Sapsuckers, and aptly named Winter Wrens, but none of the bird we were searching for, and so on this particular day, Butner was a bust.
So Mark, Scott, and I tried the nearby Ellerbe Creek mudflats, where Scott had found a Long-billed Dowitcher the week before. The dowitcher didn’t make an appearance, but we did find getting-late birds like both Yellowlegs and a Stilt Sandpiper hopping along on one foot because his other leg flopped at his side, broken apparently by some unseen force of nature. As we made our way down towards the flats proper, across the expansive grassy field that had at one time housed mud and shorebirds galore, a small bird flushed from in front of us. I didn’t get a great look, but Scott followed it up into a nearby tree. “I’ve got it,” he said. “It’s a Vesper Sparrow!” Our target bird!
|Autofocus can be a frustrating thing sometimes...|
I managed to get the bird in my spotting scope, breathing in my life looks and getting a chance to study its bold eye-ring and streaky sides, an absolutely unmistakable bird. Soon after spotting it, the bird flew across the vast field that makes for seemingly perfect habitat, and unfortunately I hadn’t gotten a good shot. Then I got a text from Nate of The Drinking Bird saying there were a bunch of Vesper Sparrows down the Ellerbe Creek flats, not realizing I’d just seen my lifer at the very location. At which point, as if on cue, another small bird popped up in the shrubs to my right – a second Vesper Sparrow, and this one much closer!
|Now this is more like it! Great life looks of a great bird.|
After getting these sweet shots, and listening to a third Vesper Sparrow sing along the creek, we continued up the flats far enough to meet Nate, who’d been birding out towards the end of the peninsulas. Apparently there were more sandpipers and some nice American Pipits to be had farther up, but we’d gotten our target bird, and we had real-world activities to attend to. On the way back, I noticed something bright green hopping amongst the dry maroon sedges – this nice Green Tree Frog, a species that I’ve seen only infrequently in the state.
|Seems out of place when it's below freezing and all the leaves are dying!|
Earlier that morning, Scott told us how the Vesper Sparrow derives its name not from the Latin word meaning ‘wasp’, or a lame scooter-like thing, or even a certain Princess from a certain 1987 parody film (SpaceBalls for those of you who consider your humor too high-brow to’ve seen this work of comedic genius) – turns out, those are all “Vespa”s. In fact, vesper is an archaic term relating to a religious service held in the late evening, and as Scott told his story it’s clear why – that time James, Mark, and I totally dipped on Vesper Sparrows while at the Roan Mountain Bald wasn’t our fault. We went in the morning, and the sparrows actually prefer being active and singing as it gets closer to dark – the exact time of day Scott and co. had tons of Vespers atop the very bald. Just goes to show – sometimes there’s more to a name than what meets the eye!