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September 14, 2013

Encountering an uncommon visitor on Plum Island

I received a midday phone call earlier this week from Doug Chickering. He called to report a handsome lark sparrow near the start of the Hellcat dike on Plum Island. I posted the sighting to the Plum Island and Massbird listservs so that others would know of Doug’s discovery.

Lark sparrows are not extreme rarities — one or more usually shows up somewhere in Massachusetts during the fall. Still, birders like to see it, especially if they keep a “year list” for the state. It is uncommon enough to see that one might go out of their way to view this bird, even if they didn’t keep a list. Lark sparrows are often found west of the Mississippi, preferring brushy habitat near shrubs and trees. I have seen flocks of them in Arizona and California. It is a boldly marked bird with clown-like facial markings, a clear breast with single “stickpin” dot in the middle, and white in the tail feathers that flash when it flies. It is a handsome bird indeed, and one that I like to see when it is around. But, as is often the case, the bird was on Plum Island and I was at work in the store for another five hours or more.

I decided that I would head down the island after work and hoped that the bird would still be visiting. In any case, it was a good excuse to get out and do a little midweek birding on what was a very pleasant autumn evening, before the humidity crept in this week. I arrived at the Hellcat parking lot, under cloudy skies, just before 6 p.m. and I was just a little bit surprised that there were only a couple of cars there. As I walked past the restrooms up to the dike, I saw that there was no one else there.

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