Big Oaks NWR – Henslow’s Sparrow

Big Oaks NWR signMay 18:  This year’s annual “snow birding” drive from Florida back to Connecticut added a detour though Tennessee and Kentucky up to Madison, Indiana for a visit to Big Oaks NWR. Part of the now partially defunct Army Jefferson Proving Grounds which was opened in 1942 for the testing of all kinds of WWII ordinance, this expansive tract of various undisturbed habitats includesHenslow's Sparrow habitat large plots of the kind of open shrubby grassland that comprises the perfect home for some 800 pairs of the near-threatened Henslow’s Sparrow, making Big Oaks an especially important sanctuary and one of North America’s premier venues to view this scarce and elusive species. Although the secretive Henslow’s spends most of its time hiding in tall grass, in springtime males will Henslow's Sparrowregularly perch up on the scattered shrubs to sing their diminutive, raspy, one-syllable “song” – if one could even call it a song. Its voice not withstanding, this is a particularly beautiful little sparrow, with its flattened head, unusual greenish face, and darkly streaked nearly red plumage on its back.

Big Oaks is also home to many other species, and just an abbreviated drive through the unpaved secluded forest roads revealed singing Cerulean, Kentucky, Worm-eating, and Yellow Warblers, Ovenbirds and Wood Thrushes, Red-eyed Vireos and Chimney Swift in flightIndigo Buntings, and others. I didn’t have time to look for a Black Tern that had been reported at the lake. One could easily spend several days here.

Back in the town of Madison itself, on the way to dinner at the old Broadway Tavern on the evening of May 17, I noticed numerous Chimney Swifts circling the buildings and the evening light provided an unanticipated photo op.


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