For birders visiting Florida there are several different types of habitat that must be visited. One of those habitats is the pine flatwoods which is dominated by Longleaf Pine with a shrubby understory that consists of several plants well adapted to the sandy, acidic soil, most memorably, Saw Palmetto. It is in this habitat that birders seek out goodies like Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachmann’s Sparrow. When I am at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, I try to get to Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area in order to see the aforementioned species and also Brown-headed Nuthatch, which for this New Yorker is a pretty cool bird to see. In 2012 I was successful, with the help of Doug Gochfeld, in finding all of those species in and around Three Lakes, and I hoped for a repeat performance but with better views of Bachmann’s Sparrow.

I arrived at dawn on 24 January, paid my entrance fee, and slowly made my way down one of the dirt roads that criss-cross the preserve. Lots of American Robins were going overhead, the occasional Eastern Towhee called from the shrubs, and Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere. Wherever I noticed a particular concentration of bird activity I pulled off, got out of the car, and walked for awhile. Though Three Lakes is popular with hunters I did not see single other person for the first two hours I explored. I gradually built my checklist, with Brown-headed Nuthatches being the first of my three target species to get checked off of my list though they failed to come close to examine my spishing.

Pine Warbler

I saw quite a few Pine Warblers in appropriate habitat. (Click to embiggen.)

At one point I walked quite a distance off the dirt roads as I wanted to check out a concentration of trees, each with a white ring painted around them to signify that they had been used by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I had no luck with the woodpeckers but did hear the call note of a Bachmann’s Sparrow. Repeatedly. But despite spending twenty minutes trying to get a look at the bird it would not show itself. That was frustrating, to say the least.

My next stop was enlivened by another sparrow species, a Grasshopper Sparrow that responded to my spishing and sat out and seemed to welcome a brief photographic session.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Don’t get me wrong, Grasshopper Sparrows are awesome sparrows, but they are not the sparrow I was looking for.

I continued on with my birding, hoping to find a cooperative Bachmann’s Sparrow and see a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I got lucky with the latter first, seeing two distant birds working over a pine. I tried to find a path through the Saw Palmetto that would get me closer to the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers but every trail I took curved away from where I wanted to go. So I gave up on getting better looks at the woodpeckers and focused on my final target species, the secretive Bachmann’s Sparrow.

At a spot that had more tall grass than palmettos I stopped, got out of the car, and spished. A Bachmann’s Sparrow called back from very close! I spished again, trying to use all of my powers of observation to see it in the thick grass. It kept calling but I could not pick it out of the vegetation. Frustrated after five minutes of this, I took my binoculars from my eyes and realized that the reason I could not see the bird in the thick growth was because it wasn’t in the thick growth. It was perched out in the open!

Bachmann's Sparrow

Bachmann’s Sparrow!!!!!

Though I only managed to get a couple of pictures before the sparrow noticed that I had spotted it, I was pretty happy about getting this kind of look at such a sneaky species. It is not often that one sits out in the open like that and it pretty much made my birding day.

Three-for-three on my target species and it only took me two-and-three-quarters hours. Not bad!

10,000 Birds is a Scrub Jay-level sponsor of the 17th Annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.