2013-11-21 / Nature

Lark Sparrow Makes Surprise Visit

By Jack Kelly

Lark Sparrow (above) and Merlin Falcon (below). (Photos by Rey Larsen) Lark Sparrow (above) and Merlin Falcon (below). (Photos by Rey Larsen) Sometimes small wonders of nature seem to appear out of nowhere. Newport resident and avid wildlife enthusiast Rey Larsen has had his share of surprise sightings in his 67 years of bird watching. Larsen’s love of all things winged began during his grammar school days in Illinois when a teacher began a Junior Audubon Club at his school. As a naval officer and medical doctor, Larsen’s military career allowed him and his family to observe avian species in all 50 states, on four continents and on islands across the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean. Now retired, Larsen is devoted to his pursuits of nature walking and bird watching. He has become a teacher and mentor to many novice birders and wildlife photographers.

Recently, Larsen was walking at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge when he sighted a Lark Sparrow on the ground, foraging for seeds along a trail. “This is the first Lark Sparrow I’ve seen on Aquidneck Island and only the second I’ve seen in Rhode Island,” Larsen said. The news of Larsen’s discovery spread like wildfire and brought bird watchers from across the region to the Sachuest Point area.

The Lark Sparrow nests and breeds in open spaces like prairies, fields, pastures, and meadows from the midwestern to western United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico. It winters in Mexico and Central America. From late August through early October, vagrant strays can make rare appearances in the East, especially along the coast.

The adult of this species is large and slender with a long tail. The average adult is 6.5 inches long and has a wingspan of 11 inches. It has a unique head pattern of red, black, and white, with a pale throat and breast. It has extensive white coloring in its tail which can be seen in flight.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. In springtime, the Lark Sparrow sings one of the most stunningly beautiful songs in nature. Its voice issues a melody that is described as a “bubbly, bunting–like carol of sweet notes and dry trills, varying in length and quality, usually with several sweet, high, incisive introductory notes.” It emits a call of “tseep!” This small miracle of nature enhances the migratory avian population that seeks shelter and food around Sachuest Point.

The wintering birds of Aquidneck Island are as diverse and unique as the habitats of the island. Another species that Larsen recently sighted and photographed is the Merlin Falcon, which has a body length of 12 inches and a wingspan of 25 inches. The male of the species is steely gray above, with a pale, heavily-streaked neck, breast and belly that appears dark in flight. It has a patterned face mask, a tail banded in black and white, and yellow legs. The adult female is brown above and dirty white below with coarse brown streaks on its breast. Her facial pattern is muted in color compared to that of the male. Juveniles of the species have the same coloring as the female.

This species nests and breeds in boreal forests and muskeg across Canada and Alaska. It winters mostly on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, as well as sections of the Great Plains.

Merlins can be found perched above fields, meadows, beaches and woodlands watching for prey. They can accelerate to incredible speeds approaching 100 mph, before snatching other birds and insects on the wing. The Merlin Falcon joins other wintering raptors across Aquidneck Island, including Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels and others.

Winter season always brings surprises for local wildlife enthusiasts and nature walkers. There are scores of wintering species that include songbirds, shorebirds, raptors, seabirds, and waterfowl. This is a dynamic time in the natural world as Newport County hosts these winged marvels and invites anyone with an eye for beauty to observe them.

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