If you want to find one of the rarest birds in America, you have to start early. You also need to train your hearing. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is hiding in a field of palmetto and grass, and the only way you’ll find him, without scaring him away, is to listen for a call that sounds remarkably like that of a grasshopper. And to catch him, you must convince him you’re another male, come to claim his territory.
Archbold biologist Greg Thompson and assistant Marcel Villar recently found an adult male Florida Grasshopper Sparrow at the Avon Park Air Force Range in central Florida. This is good news, because only a handful of these endangered birds have been spotted on the property in the last few years. After double checking that the bird is still in the same place, Greg gathers his teammates together to catch the bird and put identification bands on its leg. My job is to photograph everything.
We set out early because our best chance of catching him is right after he wakes up. Photographing in the dark means my camera needs extra time to absorb the dim light provided by the biologists’ headlamps. I like how spooky these photos turn out.
We find the location of our bird by listening for its grasshopper-like call. Once we have a good idea of where it is hiding, the biologists set up a 40-50 foot long net nearby. Then we hide while Greg uses an MP3 player to play the call of a male Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. His plan is to convince the real sparrow that a rival male is nearby. I lay in the grass about 100 feet away, trying to be silent and out of sight. I can’t see much, but can hear the faint sounds of Greg’s recording. After only a minute, the sparrow decides to investigate its rival and flies right into our net. Success! This type of trapping is called “mist netting.” Greg and fellow biologist Emily Angell work quickly and carefully to untangle the bird from the net.
The biologists work by headlamps as the sun rises behind a cloudy sky. They are specially trained for their tasks, and everything they do has to be done in a certain way.
Handling Florida Grasshopper Sparrows is illegal without a special permit from the US Geological Survey. Greg is in charge today, but in our team Emily is the only one with a permit to handle our bird. She is very careful to hold him in a way that keeps him from flying away, but doesn’t hurt him.
Emily gives the captured bird a silver band with an identification number. She also adds small colored bands that will make the bird identifiable from a distance.
Emily uses calipers to take measurements of the bird’s beak. These measurements will help us compare this individual to others Archbold has banded in the past.
Seeing the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow this close is a memory I will cherish the rest of my life. Despite the best efforts of biologists and land managers at the Avon Park Air Force Range and other sites in Florida, this subspecies is edging toward extinction. Due to a combination of problems, including the loss of most of Florida’s prairies and the invasion of exotic fire ants, only 200-300 Florida Grasshopper Sparrows are left. In fact, biologists think it may be the most endangered bird in the USA. Even so, the little fellow Emily holds in her hand represents hope. If he is successful, his call will attract a mate, and someday generations of their offspring may once again fill Florida’s prairies.
Before releasing the bird, the biology team poses for a quick photo. From left to right: Marcel Villar , Stephen Mugel, Emily Angell, and Greg Thompson. These biologists work every day to understand and protect Florida’s endangered species.
Watch a short video from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about how researchers study Florida Grasshopper Sparrows here.
Learn more about Archbold Biological Station’s bird research and conservation at the Avon Park Air Force Range here.
Written and photographed by Dustin Angell, Archbold Education Coordinator