Two Rarities Delight Local Birders: LeConte’s Sparrow and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Oct 25, 2017

LeConte’s Sparrow
Credit Sean Williams

In the mind of the birder, rarity imparts beauty the average person might not see. A skulking little bird recently discovered at Peterson Farm in Falmouth is a good example of this phenomenon, at least at first glance. 

On Sunday, Falmouth birder Mike Schanbacher discovered a small sparrow near the barn of this grassy, sheep-grazed farm, and noticed immediately that it wasn’t one of our ordinary sparrows. The short, sharply-pointed tail and bright, ochre-colored face told him this was a LeConte’s Sparrow, a bird he’d never seen before, and that bird was lost.


LeConte’s Sparrows breed in marshy prairies of western and central Canada and as far east as Lake Michigan, and winter in the Gulf Coast states. Occasional vagrants turn up in these parts, and always generate excitement among birders. The casual observer likely wouldn’t see what the big deal was about – these guys are tiny, skulking, and, sort of brownish if you don’t look closely. But with good views, I would argue that a LeConte’s Sparrow is a work of art, and well worth the time it takes to get a proper look. I liken this sparrow to a little envoy bringing us a glimpse of the subtle beauty of the western prairies. Its amber face is a bit of prairie sunshine on those waves of grain we’re always hearing about, the purplish collar recalls a certain mountain’s majesty. Check the website for a beautiful photo of the Peterson Farm bird that will show you what I mean.


Meanwhile, a different rare bird found in Truro was at the less subtle end of the spectrum. In the half light of dawn on Friday, Sean Williams noticed an odd bird wheeling around with the swallows at Highland Light in Truro. Flashes of salmon pink in the underparts and a gratuitously long bifurcated tail revealed it to be a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher – perhaps the most spectacular flycatcher in North America. The location seemed a likely one – the wild and wind-swept golf links around Highland Light, punctuated with the occasional shrubby tree, closely resemble the hilly, tree-dotted prairies of Texas and Oklahoma where this species breeds.


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
Credit TexasEagle /

The bird quickly disappeared from the Highland Light area, but was improbably relocated by Truro birder John Young while he biked around town later that day. In what pristine habitat had the rarity now settled? Why, the Old North Cemetery, right on Rt. 6 in Truro. The flycatcher has spent most of its time over the last few days fly catching from atop 18th century gravestones. In a part of the Cape dominated by protected National Park heathlands, grasslands, and marshes, this bird, who flew all the way from Texas to get here, for some reason settled in a tiny cemetery along a busy highway.


Maybe this bird is a history buff, or is really into Halloween, but more likely, this is just another example of how, when it comes to habitat, birds don’t really care about aesthetics. Most birders know that sewage treatment ponds and landfills are great birding spots. With this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, I assume that as long as there’s food and places to perch and hide from hawks, he is happy. While you might think it would be a bit of dead scene, apparently there are enough insects and fruiting shrubs in this sunny little boneyard to keep this bird in business.


If you decide to look for this flycatcher at the cemetery, it shouldn’t be too hard to find him if he’s there. In addition to the fact that he’s pink and gray with a super long scissored tail, he’ll be the bird giving you a grave look.