Bird #340 — Henslow’s Sparrow

ammodramus (from ammos, sand, and dramein, to run) henslowii (given in 1831 by John James Audubon for his friend John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge University in England)

Saturday, June 8, 1991 — 8:20 am

Zion, Illinois — Illinois Beach State Park

I was on a mission.  I knew this bird was mythical, and I wanted to prove it.  It was supposed to breed in Cook County, but I’d never spotted one.  It wasn’t for lack of looking.  On one quest, I got myself stuck in the middle of a blackberry patch that stretched for miles in every direction.  By the time I got back to my car, I looked like Swiss cheese.  I pulled tiny thorns out of my body for hours.  I had been following directions to a field where they were supposed to be found, but not only did I not find the bird, I didn’t find the field.

They’ve been reported from Crabtree.  They’ve been reported from Illinois Beach.  I’d been both places dozens of times, but no Henslow’s Sparrow.  I’d even gone to Illinois Beach twice earlier in 1991 and hadn’t seen one.  But the hotline was reporting them from there, so I decided to try again. And this time I was determined to do it right. I spent the night before studying the field guides, got up early on Saturday, and listened to the song on tape the whole way up in the car.

I parked in the crater-filled lot at the end of Greenwood Avenue, about half a mile from the south border of the park. I hiked up the beach, spotting a Horned Grebe swimming off shore in Lake Michigan on the way. When I got to the prairie where the bird was reported, I began my search. I went about it very methodically.  I started on the lake side, walking slowly. Every 50 feet I stopped and listened for two or three minutes. I repeated this over and over. I carefully checked every bird I saw and tracked down every song I couldn’t identify. I saw Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows and Bank Swallows. I saw Savannah Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows and Field Sparrows. I saw Eastern Meadowlarks, Western Meadowlarks and tons of Mourning Doves. But no Henslow’s Sparrow.

When I reached the pines at the north end of the prairie, I walked west for a hundred yards or so, then started back south again. I’d been at it for more than an hour. I hadn’t gone far when, on one of my periodic stops, I thought I heard something. I froze. I listened with every fiber of my being. I felt, more than heard, what I thought was a Henslow’s Sparrow. But a Grasshopper Sparrow was singing from a bush just a few yards behind me and drowing out the other song. I strained and strained, but I couldn’t pinpoint what I was hearing. I decided it was just a ventriloquial part of the Grasshopper Sparrow’s song.

As I was standing there, I realized I had never explored the part of the prairie off to the west of where I stood. Since one direction was as good as another, and since the bird was mythical anyway, I decided to head that way.

I went about five steps and heard the mystery sound again. I stopped, and as I did so, I spotted a sparrow perched on the tip of a small branch sticking up from a small bush in a low, wet area. I set up my scope and zoomed in on it. I had my Henslow’s Sparrow.

It was about 20 yards away from me, and about 30 yards from a scattered grove of small trees. It was facing away from me, but in clear view. I could see all the field marks except the streaked breast. The head really was olive green. It looked around nervously, often peering over its shoulder in my direction. Every 10 seconds or so, it lifted its head and gave its pathetic “tsi-lit” song. Even from 20 yards, and even though I was looking right at the bird, the song wasn’t loud or obvious. I checked the time, looked in my Peterson’s to double-check the marks and rechecked the bird. Still it perched there singing. I was loving it. I felt that somehow I had advance to a higher level of birding excellence.

I memorized the bird because I didn’t know if I’d ever see another one. I wanted it to turn around and give me a view of its front, but it never did. After seven minutes it flew off, dropping down in fluttering flight and disappearing into the foot and a half grass. I walked over to where it had been and broke off the top two inches of the branch where it had perched.

On my hike back across the prairie, I saw an Upland Sandpiper in a dead tree giving its eerie call. I flushed a Mourning Dove from under my feet. I looked where it had come from and saw two white eggs laying on a few loose strands of grass in a tiny depression under a tuft of grass.

There was a Ford Escort parked next to my car when I got to the lot, and in the car was a young couple, making out. As I was getting in my car, the guy called over to me and asked which direction I was going. I asked why he wanted to know. He said, “I need a ride to the police station. My brother got arrested last night, and he took my keys.” He hadn’t seemed to be in much of a panic when I walked up. It smelled pretty fishy to me. There were dozens of people in the area, fishing and playing on the beach, and there was a factory a quarter-mile away where I’m sure he could have borrowed a phone. How did he get there? And how did the car get there? It hadn’t been there when I arrived. I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He didn’t seem surprised. The experience gave me the creeps, and I didn’t go back to Greenwood Avenue for several years. When I did, a fence had been put up and it was impossible to get to the prairie.

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