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Arb notes: Carleton’s stunning sparrows

photograph by Mathew Zappa ‘22

Imagine crossing continents using only your physical strength, then doing it again, and again whenever the seasons change. This process defines the wonder that is migration. Now, imagine migrating huge distances and not getting enough press or attention for your troubles!

Unlike some birds such as warblers and raptors, sparrows are sometimes underappreciated by observers. Though often inconspicuous, sparrows produce beautiful songs and are thrilling to observe.

The Arb is a fantastic location to search for sparrows! The woodlands and grasslands of both the Lower and Upper Arbs provide habitat for a variety of sparrow species. Summer can be a good time to watch and listen to sparrows, because the Arb’s native prairies host a plethora of breeding species, but it is easy to argue that fall, especially late September and October, is the best time to observe sparrows in the Arb.

Numerous sparrow species spend time in Northfield. Over the past year, 20 sparrow species have been observed in The Arb (per eBird.org)! One species of interest due to its magnificent look, uncommon status, and autumn abundance in The Arb is the LeConte’s Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii).

In the fall, LeConte’s Sparrows depart from their breeding range in the grasslands of the upper Midwest (including northern Minnesota) and Canada and head to the southern U.S. (see https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/LeContes_Sparrow/overview). Though they are notoriously difficult to see, LeConte’s can be surprisingly visible in The Arb. Last year, as many as 15 individuals were seen in one day (https://ebird.org/checklist/S74410440)! The Lower Arb prairie is the best spot to search for LeConte’s Sparrows in The Arb.

If on a chilly, autumn day you find yourself walking through the prairies or woodlands of the world class Carleton Arboretum, keep your eyes and ears peeled for the soft chirps and varied plumage of the many sparrow species that call the region home for the fall migration.

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