Finding nests of a rare sparrow in South Sound

Finding nests of birds is like discovering hidden treasure.  It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe when coming across an immaculately woven nest cradling a delicate clutch of eggs. For scientists at CNLM, finding nests also helps us develop strategies for conserving imperiled bird species.  By locating nests, we can measure nest success rates, determine cause of nest failures, estimate the number of young produced, and identify preferred vegetation characteristics. Together, these key pieces of information help us understand the factors limiting bird populations and allow us to develop management actions to benefit them.

An Oregon Vesper Sparrow perched on prairie vegetation.

For part of this summer, Kristin McDermott, the CNLM Avian AmeriCorps member, spent a few days each week trying to find nests of the Oregon Vesper Sparrow on Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) military base.  This effort was part of a new pilot project CNLM initiated with our partners at JBLM to better understand the breeding ecology of one of the rarest birds in South Sound prairies.  Oregon Vesper Sparrows, which get their name because they commonly sing in the evenings, were historically considered abundant in prairie-oak habitats west of the Cascades.  Recent surveys by the American Bird Conservancy suggest that less than 300 individuals remain in Washington State, with most occurring in south Puget Sound on the prairies of JBLM.  Due to its rarity and severe population decline, the Oregon Vesper Sparrow has been listed as a candidate species by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and in November 2016 was petitioned for listing as an endangered species. 

It turns out that finding nests of Oregon Vesper Sparrows is very difficult. This should not be surprising considering birds have evolved to be secretive and cryptic when selecting nest sites, presumably to minimize the chance of predators finding their nest.  Fortunately, Kristin was undeterred and her perseverance in following individuals and interpreting breeding behavior paid off.  During the summer, she found three nests and followed their fate.  All three nests were successful and she was able to band seven nestlings, which we hope to see returning next year. 

Looking for sparrows in their habitat.

A nest of Oregon Vesper Sparrows.

We are already looking forward to next summer when we can build upon what we learned during this year’s pilot project.  As we gather more information on Oregon Vesper Sparrow breeding biology and their habitat needs in South Sound, we can develop more comprehensive strategies for its conservation, and implement management actions that offer recovery opportunities.  Stay tuned for more updates about our progress!

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