After 30 years of searching, I finally saw my first Harris's Sparrow in Fargo.
My two targets for Fargo were Gray Partridge and Harris’s Sparrow. Harris’s Sparrow was actually my number one target for the trip. It was, by far, my biggest miss among North American birds. I had lived most of my life just to the east of the winter range and migration path of the bird (in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Alabama) and for three years just to the west in New Mexico, and over the years, there had been many stakeout birds within about an hour’s drive of where I lived. But I wanted to find my own Harris’s Sparrow. Once I turned down changes to see feeder birds in the early 1980s, I just kept waiting to run into one when I was birding or for the chance to be in their winter range in the right time of year. Thirty years later, with about 650 birds on my life list, I was still waiting for a Harris’s Sparrow to land in front of me. To make the situation even more frustrating, Harris’s Sparrow holds a special place in the history of the study of plumage coloration. It is the species around which the concept of status signaling with black patches of plumage was first conceived by Sievert Rohwer in the 1970s. I had put a photograph of Harris’s Sparrows in my National Geographic Bird Coloration book. It was time to remove that birds from my list of misses.
I flew into Fargo on Thursday evening so I could visit the Biology Department at North Dakota State University and give a seminar on Friday. Fargo seemed to be a perfect size for a city. It is big enough to have a major university (not quite Division 1 in football but they occasionally wail on Division 1 teams) but with a first class faculty in ecology, behavior, and evolution. As is typical when visiting a department, I had meetings with faculty, postdocs, and students all day on Friday. This was supposed to be the pre-birding part of my visit, but for our one-hour meeting at 10am, Dr. Britt Heidinger took me to some of the House Sparrow colonies where she is studying the physiology and behavior of this abundant exotic. Word had gotten out that I wanted to see a Harris’s Sparrow and the experimental farm with the House Sparrows had a shelterbelt with the promise of migrants including Harris’s Sparrow. It was drizzly and breezy, but Britt managed to find a Harris’s Sparrow and get me on it so not only did I see it, I photographed it. We also got to see some migrants including Solitary Sandpiper, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Tennessee Warbler. It was the best appointment during a seminar visit ever.
The next morning, with my official duties over, former Auburn master’s student now SDSU doctoral student Aubrey Sirman took me birding. We started with a search for Gray Partridge. Aubrey had kindly scouted this introduced galliform for me. It is a low-density resident mostly of developed sections of Fargo. I read that it could also be found at the edge of agricultural fields all over North Dakota, but I wanted to get it before I left Fargo. “Developed” has a different meaning in remote Midwestern towns like Fargo than it would in New Jersey. Fargo has sprawled outward with absolutely no concern for any consolidation of development. There are as many vacant lots as developed lots and between road and businesses there are wide strips of what we could charitably call degraded prairie. It is at these margins that Gray Partridge dwell. Everyone who lives in Fargo has seen them, but no one can consistently find them. Aubrey had twenty places to try and it was at the 20th stop just as we were giving up that Aubrey spotted them—a pair of Gray Partridge next to the Gander Mountain shopping center. They sat still long enough for me to photograph them and then they were off. These were the only Gray Partridge that I saw during ten dawn-to-dark days of birding with may hours driving around agricultural fields. Don’t expect to easily run into Gray Partridge if you visit North Dakota and Minnesota. I’d make a point of getting them in Fargo. Many thanks, Aubrey.
I left Fargo that afternoon two-for-two on target birds.
Aubrey Sirman helped me find a pair of Gray Partridge in Fargo. This is a hard bird to locate during a short birding visit.