There have been numerous accounts of unusual birds recently, including a Steller’s Sea-journey Eagle’s from Russia to Alaska, Texas, and finally, Maine where it seems happy to stay.
In the Rio Grande Valley’s Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, birders discovered the country’s first-ever confirmed sighting of a Bat Falcon, a small raptor from Central America with a beautiful appearance (and an equally impressive name). The Sea-Eagle and Bat Falcon are joyful accidents, despite the fact that they are both out of place and spectacular to see.
Among the uncommon birds in Brazos County is one that has an interesting backstory.
Brent Cox, a birder from College Station, Texas, captured this photo of a Henslow sparrow in the Texas A&M Ecology and Natural Resources Teaching Area on Nov. 14. The area is open to the public for educational purposes, research, and outdoor leisure with consideration for wildlife.
Birdwatchers went into a frenzy when they spotted this tiny sparrow. Visitors to College Station were hoping for a sight of grassland birds.
Birder Tyler Scott discovered a second Henslow sparrow at Veterans Park and Athletic Complex on Jan. 12, surprising the local birding community. Birders from around the state, including many from Texas, were eager to catch a glimpse of this particular species.
Henslow’s sparrows, a little grassland bird found in pockets of grassland throughout the eastern United States, are often recognized as one of the most attractive North American sparrows. It’s not uncommon for them to stay close to the ground until they sense the need for northward or southward migration.
We know relatively little about their lives, habits, and diets, especially on their wintering grounds. Henslow’s sparrow populations are in decline across their entire range, as is the case with many other grassland species. This is most likely due to habitat loss caused by fire control and land conversion.
Grassland fires in North America are frequently extinguished before they have a chance to damage human property, resulting in the near-demise of grassland ecosystems. Henslow’s sparrow, in particular, relies on the seeds and grasses that grow after a grassland has been burned off.
This sparrow is one of many grassland species that can be found in the last remaining patches of grassland habitat. The deterioration of our wildlife’s grasslands is being closely monitored by wildlife biologists and officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who are employing techniques like prescribed burning to combat the problem.
Much of Brazos County’s ecosystem is what we call Post Oak Savannah, a grassland interrupted by our ubiquitous post oak trees. In the past, this area was a popular wintering ground for Henslow’s sparrows.
Crop agriculture and cattle ranching have had significant impacts on Brazos County ecology since European settlement in Texas began in earnest. Cattle ranching and grazing have altered grassland habitat, and fire suppression has resulted in the near-extinction of the Henslow’s sparrow in this portion of Texas.
On January 1, 2019, a controlled fire program was launched to help restore some of Brazos County’s ancient grassland habitat. The area was formerly managed by Texas A&M. As a result of that hard work, these birds are a sign that the Henslow’s sparrow may return to Brazos County.
When it comes to conservation, Henslow’s sparrow and other native species could benefit from what we’ve learned about the importance of protecting and renewing grasslands.