Larry Porter was a beloved former sports and outdoor writer for the Omaha World-Herald. He passed away March 2. In retirement, Porter pursued his interest in nature photography, and just before his passing, he contributed this story and photographs to Nebraskaland to publish on this site. We are saddened to learn about Porter’s passing, and we are sharing this story here now to honor his memory and legacy.
— Nebraska Game and Parks Staff
By Larry Porter
People chuckle at my fanciful goal of photographing all 38 species of sparrows found in North America. To most, sparrows are small, inconsequential brown birds that fit nicely under the heading of “drab.”
I agree. I’ve reached the halfway mark at 19 and have found that sparrows, in general, don’t possess the WOW factor. But a few do. Two species— the LeConte’s (above) and Nelson’s (below) — set the bar high for beauty in sparrows. Their appearances are similar, and they even live in the same marshy habitat on America’s Great Plains and Canada’s expansive grasslands. In fact, these images were taken on an early October morning only minutes apart and within yards of each other.
LeConte’s and Nelson’s sparrows look so alike that some folks think they are looking at the same species. However, birder Steve Kruse, who showed me the birds’ location and was with me when I photographed them at Lincoln’s Marsh Wren Saline Wetland, taught me the subtle differences between the two birds.
LeContes’ are among the smallest of sparrows at about 4.3 inches. Nelsons’ are just a shade larger. Both have yellow breasts, but Nelsons’ are decorated with dark streaks. LeContes’ have a purplish-gray spot on the back of the neck.
Although LeContes’ migrate through eastern Nebraska on a fairly common basis during spring and fall, they are notoriously elusive. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says a LeConte’s acts more like a mouse than a bird. It forages on the ground in thick, marshy reeds and cattails and often scampers from danger by running instead of flying. Researchers conducting a study in Wisconsin identified the presence of 86 LeContes’ that were singing but found only eight by sight. An image of a fully exposed LeConte’s is a prized possession for a photographer.
A Nelson’s image might even be more difficult to obtain. They are a bit more willing to pop into view, but opportunities are lacking. They rarely come through the Midlands during the spring migration. Sightings in the fall are uncommon because they migrate to the Atlantic Coast and winter mainly in the saltmarshes of southeastern United States.
Some Nelsons’ prefer to breed along the Atlantic Coast instead of the interior marshes. There, they mingle with what is nearly a twin. Saltmarsh and Nelson’s sparrows are so much alike that they were considered the same species and were named sharp-tailed sparrows until 1998, according to the Cornell Lab. All Nelsons’ spend the winter in the southeastern coastal saltmarshes.
The hippie movement of the 1960s would have happily included the Nelson’s under their banner of “free love.” According to the National Audubon Society, males do not defend territories but move around the marsh, singing to attract females. Both sexes are promiscuous and no pairs are formed. Males take no part in caring for the eggs or young, and the three to six nestlings are likely to have different fathers. ■