Karl Overman: Birds and More


If ever a bird deserved to be on the cover of the Christmas Count edition of American Birds, it is the Lincoln’s Sparrow photographed below on December 29th in downtown Detroit.  I mean, how often does a rare bird on a Christmas Count get photographed in a tree adorned with Christmas lights?  The wintry scenery shot of downtown Detroit on December 29, 2007 shows the meager habitat this bird was making use of--ornamental planting boxes set in wide concrete sidewalks only a couple feet from the major artery of downtown Detroit, Woodward Avenue. I had seen a Lincoln’s Sparrow in the same planter on Woodward Avenue a year earlier, namely December 6, 2006. That winter I saw Lincoln’s Sparrow within a long urban block of there until January 27, 2007. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Lawrence Walkinshaw summarized the status of this species, in his article The Lincoln’s Sparrow in Michigan, Jack Pine Warbler  61, 81 (1983):

                Fifty years ago we considered the Lincoln’s Sparrow a rare bird in Michigan.  Either the  bird has increased throughout the northern part of the Lower Peninsula and in the Upper Peninsula, or it has been overlooked.  I think it is the former because there were many good ornithologists 50-100 years ago and most of them were collectors.

    Alan Wormington, in researching the history of the species in the Point Pelee area  of Ontario also notes that historically Lincoln’s Sparrow was considered an unusual species and was rarely reported. Wormington suspected that it was more a case of the species being overlooked than some major shift in the abundance of the species.

As a migrant, experienced observers can generate relatively high numbers of this species in a day, e.g., 20 on May 12, 1956  North Cape, Monroe County Binford, Slud & Kirby (Binford notes); 20 May 11, 1984 Dearborn, Wayne County Jim Fowler.  JPW 62 3 p.84 (1984)(the number is 15-20 in Fowler’s original notes).  Not surprisingly, Alan Wormington in researching Point Pelee records, has chronicled much higher numbers for Pelee by various observers, e.g., 340 on May 10, 1983 by Michael Runtz (Marsh Boardwalk to tip).

The species breeds in the Upper Peninsula and northern portions of the Lower Peninsula.  On July 4, 1969 Napier Sheldon found a large population of Lincoln’s Sparrows breeding in the Minden Bog in Sanilac County in the Thumb of Michigan (not 1970 as stated by Gail McPeek, Birds of Michigan 311 (1994)).  He estimated a population of 230 pairs in a 2.5 square mile area.  Napier Sheldon, Lincoln’s Sparrows at the Minden City State Game Area, JPW 48 94-96 (1970).  The Minden Bog is the largest roadless area in southern Michigan.  See photo below for Minden Bog habitat.

Lincoln’s Sparrow is a classic example of misidentification in winter, especially on Christmas Counts, in the Great Lakes area.  Normally it is difficult to find in the Great Lakes area after November 1st.  For example Julie Craves in Birds of Southeast Michigan: Dearborn 114 (1996) lists the latest date for the Dearborn area as November 6, 1995.  Winter records are normally treated with deserved skepticism.  Accordingly I have been intrigued regarding finding Lincoln’s Sparrows regularly into November in downtown Detroit and at times into early winter.  I cannot say with certainty the species has successfully wintered in downtown Detroit but that was a distinct possibility during several recent winters.

I worked in downtown Detroit from the fall of 1973 to September 1, 2007.  For years I was oblivious to the fact that  the meager vegetation around downtown office buildings and along boulevards in the downtown area, harbored native bird species that were present on a regular basis in migration. The early 1990s is when I first became aware of these urban birds, including Lincoln’s Sparrows (e.g., 1 Lincoln’s Sparrow and Ovenbird on November 1, 1991, Washington Blvd.).  I eventually used the term “Urban Birding” to refer to actively search for such birds. 

Lincoln’s Sparrows act like mice, dare I say rats?  in downtown Detroit,  darting for cover typically when one first sees them.  A trade off is, since they are accustomed to people walking nearby, they allow close approach unless you veer off from the path of standard pedestrians.     I have learned that in downtown Detroit from October through December, I am more likely to find Lincoln’s Sparrows than Song Sparrows in the marginal habitat of downtown Detroit.  My high count for the species downtown is eight on October 19, 2006.   During the past decade I worked at finding urban birds in late fall in downtown Detroit in earnest.  Here are late dates I had for Lincoln’s Sparrows during that time span:

  fall 1999: December 15, 1999 (photo) (Jim Fowler photographed presumably the same bird on the Detroit River Christmas Count on January 1, 2000)

fall 2000--no late records

fall 2001--  seen through December; last seen February 1, 2002.

fall 2002---no late records

fall 2003: December 1, 2003 one seen by myself and Tom Heatley; last seen by me on December 29th.

fall 2004: November 4, 2004

fall 2005--November 20, 2005

fall 2006--seen through December; last seen January 23, 2007

fall 2007:  December 29, 2007 (photo below)

fall 2008:  November 29, 2008  seen with Robert Epstein

fall 2009:  December 1, 2009 at Grand Circus Park; Jerry Sniderman and Mike Mencotti saw presumably the same bird on December 5th.

fall 2010: November 20, 2010: 2: one at Campus Martius and one at Barden Communications Building.  I next checked on December 10th and could not find any in downtown Detroit.

fall 2012: December 18, 2012 Cadillac Square (with Scott Jennex)

Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)   

Modified December 19, 2012