Sage Sparrow – In Gunnison Basin

Sage Sparrow in Wyoming Big Sagrebrush , Gunnison Basin, Colorado

Last may I went out with Dr. Patrick Magee of Western State College in Gunnison to walk a transect and document songbirds. We were near Parlin in a plot marked for the transect, where Pat walks in a pattern and notes every songbird positively identified by sight or sound. It’s one of the many locations in the Basin where sage treatments have been done to improve habitat for endangered Gunnsion sage grouse and obligate species. A variety of techniques are used; including discing, chemical treatments, and re-seeding. The area has a lot of small or dying old sage, with blotches of bare ground, void of necessary native grass and forbs. There are also signs of recovery, with new sagebrush emerging. Cheat grass hasn’t taken hold here, a good sign. We were looking and listening for Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, green-tailed towhee, and sage sparrow, rare for Gunnison Basin. In fact, Pat had just located a sage sparrow nest in 2009, the first positive ID of the bird at the eastern end of their range. I’d been playing songs from the Cornell Itunes “album” and familiarizing myself with the four birdsongs, and quickly recognized the run-on blather of sage thrashers to the north. Green-tailed towhee’s sang from a high perch on the few junipers, and Brewer’s sparrow blasted from across the sage, pausing long enough to sing beautifully in defense of territory. Just when Pat was describing the sage sparrow discovery, he paused for the beep…beep-beep of a male sage sparrow, maybe 50 yards to the east. We couldn’t see him, but we had positive identification.

Pat documented the location for each bird, we picked up some Gunnison Sage-grouse castings (poop) and heard another sage sparrow in the opposite direction of the first, males competing for territory. There’s no substitute for time in the field with experts, and Pat Magee knows this landscape better than anyone. He heads up Sisk-A-Dee; the group that coordinates the watchable wildlife program for Gunnison Sage-grouse, and is involved in seemingly everything related to grouse and conservation in and around the Basin. Pat understood from the beginning what my Sage Spirit project is all about and has patiently suffered my laymen’s questions since. Other than the field education, I wanted to make images of each of the sagebrush obligate species, birds that are obligated to nest and raise their young in sage. Pat upped the ante by saying that it would be nice to get pictures of sage sparrow and I chuckled as I considered the long odds with a handful of birds in the entire basin. But I’m game for a challenge and planned to set up my blind the next morning anyway – strategically located between the two sage sparrows we identified.

When Brewer’s sparrow and green-tailed towhee hear their song played through speakers, they respond immediately, looking for the male that’s in their territory. The Brewer’s don’t stick around, though, so you have to be fast on the draw. I had a blast sending out audio challenges and watching bad ass little Brewer’s come flying to the sage around my blind, then leave in an instant. Just when I thought of packing up, a male sage sparrow landed right in front of me. I made a few images, then a few more that were composed better, and he was gone. That was it, five or ten seconds with a sagebrush icon, further east than he’s supposed to be. I thanked the birds and packed up, a big grin smashed on my face on a day when luck stopped by my blind. It’s not always like that, but you have no chance unless you’re out there.

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