I went out for my traditional New Year’s Day bird walk at Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, located at the entrance of New York Harbor and not far from where I live. Skies were clear and sunny with temperatures in the upper 40s. Winds were breezy out of the northwest.
The usual cast of characters were flying around the peninsula on this mild winter’s day. There were scoters, gannets and loons out in the ocean, buffleheads, brants, cormorants, and mergansers swimming in the bay, and snow buntings, sparrows and one and two peregrine falcons and harriers flying high above the earth.
When I reached the North Beach parking lot, I was shocked to see something out of the ordinary. A lone Lark Sparrow perched silently near the parking lot on a bare bayberry branch in a brushy area.
I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. Usually Lark Sparrows are common in the open country out west. They often summer in much of the central and western United States and spend the winter in the extreme southern parts of the United States and into Mexico.
Yet, here was a striking sparrow that had all the salient features of a bird that shouldn’t be here. It had a reddish crown and cheek patch, a black line in front of and behind the eye, and a black cheek stripe. What really gave this bird away, though, was a large black spot in the central breast. A conspicuous colorful pattern of feathers that was different from any native sparrow.
The bird also had a long, rounded tail with white corners and grayish-white underparts. A large adult Lark Sparrow for sure.
What this bird was doing at Sandy Hook or how it got here on New Year’s Day is anyone’s guess. Small numbers of Lark Sparrows are sometimes reported on the East Coast mostly in the fall, during migration. The mild winter so far around New York Harbor maybe confused this little bird and perhaps the abundance of seeds and insects at Sandy Hook gave it no rush to fly off.
Whatever the reasons may be, this particular Lark Sparrow was spreading it wings and cheer for me on this New Year’s Day. Always nice to get a close look at a scarce bird in the east.