Savannah Sparrow


The Savannah Sparrow shown in this print was photographed on a lawn in Holyoke’s Pulaski Park:


Below, a field recording posted to the bird audio archive site Xeno-Canto:

While I do most of my birding in the heart of Holyoke, I find it helpful to take regular trips to more traditional birding venues around the Pioneer Valley.

Checking in at places like Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton helps me keep tabs on when migratory species are arriving in western Massachusetts. That, in turn, tells me what birds to be on the lookout for in Holyoke, and where I might find them.

In late April, a visit to Arcadia yielded sightings of a number of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, and the first Savannah Sparrow I’d ever seen. The warblers were all hanging out in wooded areas near water; the Savannah Sparrow was in a large grassland area known as The Meadows.

I made mental notes of those habitats and planned to check similar areas in Holyoke for those species later that afternoon.

Because the Connecticut River provides one of the city’s borders, wooded areas near water are plentiful, even near the city’s most urban neighborhoods. The first spot I checked was a little slice of land by the river behind the Crocker Paper Mill. Within a few minutes I’d spotted a Palm Warbler.

A day later, I found a number of Yellow-rumped Warblers in the same spot.

The Savannah Sparrow, though, seemed like it would be elusive. The Meadows at Arcadia are a very unique habitat — large tracts of open land that were farmed until fairly recently. There are few places in western Massachusetts like it, let alone Holyoke (and especially let alone downtown Holyoke).

My best guess was that if I could find these birds at all, I’d find them in one of the city’s larger parks.

Pulaski Park, which runs between the northeast end of downtown Holyoke and the river, isn’t exactly grassland, but it offers some of the largest open spaces you can find in this part of the city.

The park dates to 1883. In 1907, the city hired the landscape architecture firm of Central Park-designer Frederick Law Olmsted to design a renovation plan for the area.

Today, there’s a new playground at one end, along with a small spray park. There’s a bocce court and a handful of tables with built-in playing boards for chess or checkers.

If you’re in the park on a weekday you’l hear all of the loudspeaker announcements and prayers at the Mater Dolorosa Catholic elementary and middle school. In the park I’ve seen an elderly couple foraging for mushrooms under trees; a man carrying a machete while walking his dog; and, beyond the park’s borders but not out of sight of the long promenade that overlooks the river, men tending campfires in the woods.

The park features two lawns that are large but by no means vast. One is at the end of the park that borders a canal. The other is closer to the opposite end of the park, near a VFW hall that hosts an annual catfish derby.

A few days after seeing the Savannah Sparrow at Arcadia, I found about a half dozen of them on the lawn near the canal. They would have been easy to miss. Even though they were foraging in the short grass, I didn’t spot them until I wandered too close and startled them.

If I hadn’t been specifically looking for Savannah Sparrows, I might’ve mis-identified them as White-throated Sparrows after only a quick glance. After more observation, I realized I was looking at the same species I’d seen at Arcadia.

A week or so later, on another walk through the park, I found the Savannah Sparrow pictured in this print foraging on the park’s other large lawn.

The whole process — using typical ‘hotspots’ as a sort of migration barometer and then trying to apply those observations to birding the city — was an interesting experiment that offered a helpful perspective.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to imagine that people outside the city are seeing interesting birds because they’re looking in ‘better’ places. The thing to remember is that, ultimately, it’s not that they’re looking in a better place — it’s that they’re looking at all.

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