Clay-colored sparrows are one our most common grassland birds at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Inexperienced birders can confuse this plain and pale sparrow with field or chipping sparrow but they are easily identified by their harsh, drawn-out monotonous buzzes. Goose Pond Sanctuary Manager Sue Foote-Martin remembers hearing them for the first time at Goose Pond seven years ago when walking in the Browne Prairie.
In late June and early July, clay-colored sparrows were confirmed nesting in the Browne Prairie for the Breeding Bird Atlas project at Goose Pond. Kristy Larsen observed and then photographed an adult carrying food in the Browne Prairie for the atlas project.
Historically clay-colored sparrows nested in southern Wisconsin. Sam Robbins wrote in 1991 in Wisconsin Birdlife that the last time clay-colored sparrows nested in the Madison area was 1920. He stated that they are a fairly common resident in western and northern Wisconsin and a rare summer resident in southern and eastern Wisconsin.
The first Breeding Bird Atlas project confirmed Sam’s comments. There was only one location in Columbia County for clay-colored sparrows in the first atlas. In the late 1990’s their habitat was described as “grass and early succession woody habitat”. They like to build their nests in shrubs about two to three feet above the ground. Madison Audubon helped coordinate the development and printing a Grassland Birds of the Midwest poster that lists 25 grassland birds with the clay-colored sparrow missing from the list. At Goose Pond they are nesting in prairies with only a scattering of shrubs.
It will be interesting to see if clay-colored sparrow numbers increase in southern Wisconsin in the second atlas project like they have at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Hike the prairie trails at Goose Pond and observe this interesting sparrow for yourself!
Photo by Tom Benson, Flickr Creative Commons