This morning I went back to check that marsh with the previous Nelson's and LeConte's records. I'd been pessimistic about the current habitat conditions, but I couldn't just give up, it was relatively convenient to stop there before a midmorning appointment.
We've had more rain lately, so there was even more water to slog through this time. An old leak in one of my boots sprung open, and temperatures were hovering just above freezing, so I was wondering if I would end up with only frostbitten toes to show for the morning!
Then, as I finally slogged out of the water onto a drier patch of trail, a very small brown bird flushed off the edge of the trail in front of me. It came out of much shorter grass than the vegetation inhabited by the other sparrows I've been seeing in that marsh... and it flushed at a remarkably close distance... and it sure was small... so that sure was interesting!
Much to my relief, the bird flew into the base of a stand of forbs where I could see it, just barely. LeConte's Sparrow for #233!
It was fidgeting a bit, but sat in that spot long enough for me to pull out my camera, convince it to focus past all those sticks, and get some identifiable shots. Here you can see the white crown stripe that helps distinguish LeConte's from Nelson's.
Eventually it hopped deeper in to the forbs and I went back to retrieve my gloves from where I'd dropped them on the trail to better handle my camera (just as well that I was out of the flooded part by then!). I walked slowly back toward the patch of forbs, saw a couple of birds flush, walked around to try to get a better look at them (they turned out to be Song and Lincoln's Sparrows)... and then looked up to see the LeConte's in clear view on a tree branch, just above eye level, maybe 15 feet from my face!
That's awfully cooperative for a skulky grassland bird! I couldn't believe my luck. Here you can clearly see the nape, which has fine brownish (Sibley calls them "purple") streaks over a pale gray base. Nelson's would have a plain gray nape. The yellow face with gray cheek patch is also obvious and eliminates any other sparrow; Henslow's has a greenish yellow face but only brown marks (including a dark brown "mustache" that's totally absent here), no gray cheek, and a bigger bill.
I left the bird alone then (it really couldn't get any better than that last photo!) and walked a short distance down the trail before time ran out and I turned around. On my way back through the spot where I'd originally flushed this bird, I again flushed something small and brown off the trail, twice. Both times it flushed at close distances but dove right back down into the short grass, so quickly that I couldn't tell anything more than "small brown sparrow," and there was no way I could see it when it was in the grass. I'm sure it must have been this same bird, and I was SO happy that I'd gotten much better looks the first time!
Here's a view of where it was the first time. It flushed out of the grass in the foreground (short, fresh green stuff that has just recently grown small seed heads), went into that first big stand of forbs in the mid-ground (is that a word?), and then up into the tree on the left.
This is only the second LeConte's to be found in La Crosse County in the history of eBird, so it's extra exciting! (Probably no one really looks for them in most years, though. I only checked this spot once last year.) I put the word out on eBird and Facebook, and several other people went out this afternoon and apparently got nice looks at the bird in this same spot. It's always fun to be able to share a good bird with others!
I would have thought a Nelson's Sparrow would be more likely in this habitat, especially under the current wet conditions, but the best thing about birding is that you never know exactly what will happen next. It's getting to be a little late for Nelson's to be moving through here, but I'll keep looking!