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Stop 9: The Leopold-Pines Conservation Area

Read about the Henslow’s Sparrow & How We Found this Elusive Bird on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area

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Henslow’s Sparrows are easily overlooked. They’re the bird equivalent of the very tiny mustard plant Leopold exalted in his essay “Draba” in his A Sand County Almanac. Just like Draba, Henslow’s Sparrows do almost next to nothing to get noticed.

Size—they’re small; go figure, the size of a sparrow. Color—so nondescript that birding groups can deride them for a laugh as an LBJ (little brown jobber), and quickly move on before identification humility can sink in.

Habit—Henslow’s spend a lot of time hunkered down in the thick thatch of prairies, preferring to walk when spooked, rather than fly. Population—the world’s population of Henslow’s breed in only a few states in the upper Midwest, so most birders would have to travel to see one. (I’m reminded that Margaret Atwood and Paul Ehrlich, when traveling through the area, had Henslow’s on their wish list.)

Song—and, you’ll love this…Henslow’s have the simplest and shortest song of any bird in North America. It’s a little tze-lick, described as a weak, insect-like hiccup. Declines—steady losses of these secretive little birds haven’t made headlines like their boisterous brethren of the grasslands, the Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink, but their decline has been no less real. They are listed as threatened in Wisconsin. Partners in Flight places them on the “Yellow Watch List” for species with declining populations, and identifies the loss of breeding habitat as the biggest threat to Henslow’s Sparrows.

We recently updated our land management plan for the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area (LPCA), the 4,000 acres of conservation land surrounding the historic Leopold Shack and Farm. Through the plan, our care of the land will help imperiled grassland and savanna bird species, and also pollinators, and ensure the land’s climate change readiness. According to our plan, our priority grassland bird species in need of help include Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Dickcissel, and, of course, Henslow’s Sparrow.

Although all LBJs are of the grasslands, their specific habitat needs can vary greatly. For example, Vesper Sparrows only get the urge to nest if they can see some dirt between the prairie plants. Contrastingly, Henslow’s need a well-developed prairie thatch, achieved only through a lack of prescribed burning for 3 to 6 years. On the LPCA, while Henslow’s have been found over the years, previous monitoring methods were designed to cover very large tracts, so their habitat was only cursorily sampled. Now, our updated plan includes a methodology for ways to focus on them.

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