Sparrow Drive at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida

On my day off last week, I attended a “sparrow” drive at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. This event was organized by the park biologist, Paul Miller. Birders and biologists from all over the region joined in, and Sam, Melanie, and Charles, who just started work on Scrub Jays at the bird lab at Archbold Biological Station, working for Shane Pruitt, were able to tag along.

A sparrow drive is exactly what it sounds like. A long line of mist nets are set up, acting as a wall that sparrows cannot fly through. After the nets are set up, a line of volunteers walks out into the prairie (or salt marsh, as Alex and I did with Fletcher Smith last summer in Virginia), around the target area to be flushed. Two volunteers each take an end of a rope; sometimes the rope can have plastic jugs or cans on it, to make more noise as it drags (this method is also used to flush rails and sometimes ducks). For this sparrow drive, we had more people than rope, so we formed a kind of arc around the target area. While the two people at the end of the rope walked forward, the large line of volunteers walked behind the dragging rope, making lots of noise (clapping and yelling), flushing any bird in front of the rope towards the net. On this sparrow drive, we had so few sparrows that when one flushed, we were able to target the area it flew in to, and make sure it flushed and didn’t let the rope pass over it. We were targeting Bachman’s, Henslow’s, and Grasshopper Sparrows, which can all be very secretive, and would usually rather run and hide in the grass, or take short low flights, instead of flushing long distances. When the line of people and rope reached the nets, the birds had nowhere else to go but into the mist nets where they were trapped. In total, we caught 3 Bachman’s Sparrows (Aimophila aestivalis), 1 Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savvanrum), in addition to 1 Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna). Even though 4 sparrows doesn’t seem like a lot, at this time of year, it would be hard to see these two species otherwise.

Paul’s team setting up the mist nets
line of volunteers behind rope getting ready to move forward and flush sparrows towards net
the invisible mist net
Moving the net array to a new area
When a sparrow hits the net, it drops down into a “pocket” where it is safe until removal.
Removing small passerines from nets can be very challenging!
Removing large birds from mist nets is typically easier, but can still be challenging.

Bachman’s Sparrow is found year-round in Florida and the Gulf Coast states to Louisiana and Texas, and as far north as North Carolina. Its summer range extends slightly north into Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, but it is declining, especially in the northern part of its range. In the south it prefers pine woods with a palmetto scrub, but it is also found in habitats of only palmetto, like the habitat at the Kissimmee Prairie, where trees are very sparse. In flight, it shows a longer tail than other sparrows of its size. Its breast is fairly plain, buffy on top but mostly white on its belly, and streaking on its head, back and wings is reddish brown and gray. It shows a rufous crown and rufous eye stripe.  We caught 3 Bachman’s Sparrows in total.

Paul weighing the first Bachman’s Sparrow
Bachman’s Sparrow (note rufous crown and rufous eye stripe)
Bachman’s Sparrow (note rufous crown and rufous eye stripe)
Paul checking the fat score of Bachman’s Sparrow. The first one caught had a low fat score.
Bachman’s Sparrow
Measuring culmen
Measuring tail
Bachman’s Sparrow
Close-up of Bachman’s Sparrow wing
Bachman’s Sparrow
Banding a Bachman’s Sparrow
Bachman’s Sparrow

There are four subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows in North America, three of which are listed as species of concern. The Florida subspecies, floridanus, is listed as endangered and is nonmigratory. Like most species with this label, it suffers from habitat destruction and must deal with the problems associated with having only a few remaining disjunct populations. The Kissimme Prairie is one of its last strongholds. In summer in the east, one can find the eastern subspecies, pratensis.  In the west, two other subspecies in occur, including perpallidus (found across much of the west and mid-west) and ammolegus (found only in south east Arizona, south west New Mexico, and northern Mexico). They can be found in grasslands, hayfields, or prairies in the summer throughout North America.  The eastern subspecies winters in the south and south east (Gulf Coast, including the Kissimme Prairie and other areas of Florida). The Grasshopper Sparrow is one of our smallest sparrows, and has a short tail distinctive in flight. It has a distinctive eye ring and yellow lores, with a buffy breast and red, gray, and black streaks on its back and wings. It has a white median crown stripe, and the color of this is variable in the different subspecies. It has an overall “cute” appearance with a large head and small body. In Florida, Grasshopper Sparrows have very specific habitat requirements (dry prairie with low shrubs/grass and saw palmetto) and depend on specific land management practices, such as prescribed burning (ideally natural fires would create this habitat). At the Kissimme Prairie, it has been observed that about 2.5 years after a prairie has been burned, Grasshopper Sparrows leave in search of a younger, more suitable prairie.

top view of Grasshopper Sparrow (pratensis subspecies)
Measuring exposed culmen of Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow: note complete eye ring and median crown stripe
back view of Grasshopper Sparrow
A Grasshopper Sparrow that Alex and I found on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, May 2010
A Grasshopper Sparrow that I found in central Kansas in 2009

Eastern Meadowlarks are found year-round in most of the south, mid-west, and east, and expand northward into the northeast and northern mid-west in the summer. They are a fairly common species in open grasslands, but in general are declining, along with most other grassland bird species. They eat mainly seeds and insects, but there was a record a year ago of a Meadowlark attacking a mouse! They can be distinguished from Western Meadowlarks by song (although Eastern Meadowlarks have variable songs), and by the amount of white on the outer rectrices (Eastern Meadowlarks have more extensive white on their outer tail feathers than Weatern Meadowlarks). Our Meadowlark appeared to be female (larger than male) and seemed to be molting into its brighter more contrasting breeding plumage.

female Eastern Meadowlark
Measuring Culmen of Eastern Meadowlark
Very worn tail of Eastern Meadowlark. Eastern Meadowlarks show thicker black barring on all feathers,
most noticeable in tail feathers. Western Meadowlarks show thinner black barring.
(see this link for more difference between the two species).
Eastern Meadowlark in molt
Paul holding Eastern Meadowlark

Grassland sparrow habitat is becoming more and more scarce throughout most of the United States, so it is extremely important to monitor populations through banding and long term population studies. Sparrow drives are currently being done all over Florida in the next two months before breeding season begins. To find a sparrow drive in Florida, keep an eye on the Florida Birds Listserv, or email me at to get in contact with Paul Miller about an upcoming sparrow drive at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Thanks to Paul Miller for organizing this event and inviting the public to see these rare species!

Kissimmee Prairie State Park represents a refuge and retreat for many of Florida’s rare and endangered species. It is home to a few breeding pairs of Crested Caracara (two pairs of which were nest building last weekend), a very diverse array of butterflies, insects and arthropods, and unique dry prairie plant species. It is also the last known nesting area for the now extinct Carolina Parakeet.

adult Crested Caracara carrying nesting material