Latin: Passerella iliaca
Serendipity: Hidden Gems in the Metro Parks by Killian Sullivan
A Fox Sparrow Perched in Tree Photo: Dominic Sherony/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Birding gets people outside where they are surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. It is also an opportunity to connect with people over a shared hobby, and to learn across a lifetime. I love birding for all these reasons, but I am also drawn to birds for the challenge. Some of our feathered friends, put simply, don’t make it easy. All birders that list species, eventually seek a bird that hides too well, is exceedingly rare, or proves to be unlucky. I am not describing a bird that takes a few trips to track down, I am talking about a true nemesis bird.
My first nemesis was the Fox Sparrow – large, rufous in color, and a beautiful singer. I frequently bird with my dad, who is a teacher. Unfortunately, our spring breaks did not align in 2022 when he encountered his first Fox Sparrow. This was one of the only birds we did not share, so it became a priority for me to find one too. His sighting came on the heels of spring migration after the vast majority had moved further north. I spent the remaining spring chasing infrequent sightings and visiting appropriate habitats. Even after a dozen attempts, the bird eluded me. It was frustrating, but I remained optimistic as the summer months approached. My family planned a July trip to the mountain town of Banff. Fox Sparrows build their summer nests in the dense shrubs that line the Canadian Rockies – a mountain range that cuts through the heart of Banff National Park.
The trip combined stunning vistas with hiking, bouldering, and whitewater rafting. We spent three weeks appreciating all that Alberta had to offer, including its birds. We saw fifty-four lifers and looked for Fox Sparrows in every bush and tree. We were confident that we heard the sparrows on several adventures, but never found them with our binoculars. The trip concluded without our target species, but it was still amazing and filled with fantastic memories. I returned home and anxiously waited for winter and the return of Ohio’s Fox Sparrows.
While waiting for fall migration and winter’s snow, I researched the species in more detail. I read their pages in every field guide and analyzed eBird data. To its extreme, I assembled a bulletin board of facts and connections that resembled a scene from CSI. On November 13, 2022, after months of searching, I was finally able to close the case. Walnut Woods Metro Park is home to a wonderful feeder station on the Sweetgum Trail. We paused here to watch birds with OSU’s Ornithology Club. While talking with their members, I saw movement in the tall grasses. I slowly approached and discovered a large sparrow foraging on the ground, kicking up leaf litter with its feet. The bird was brownish-red and wore a combination of streaks and spots across its breast and belly. It was the elusive Fox Sparrow! I had found my first true nemesis bird.
One great thing about birding is the chasing and challenge never ends – even when you find your nemesis. By the time I had found a Fox Sparrow, I was already developing a new foe. This time it took shape as a large, upright flycatcher, famous for its darker sides that resemble an opened vest. My new nemesis was the Olive-sided Flycatcher. We unsuccessfully chased several reports as far as Wooster in the fall of 2022. Unlike Fox Sparrows, these flycatchers are not winter residents, so we had to wait until their spring migration to continue our search. In May, a cooperative one was seen at Kiwanis Riverway Park, but my dad was out of town, and we were unable to chase it. Through the spring and continuing in the fall, we assembled an impressive and agitating list of just misses. Once again, we were convinced that Canada was the answer.
This September, our family traveled north through Windsor, Point Pelee, and across the province to Toronto and Niagara Falls. Olive-sided Flycatchers are more common to our north, but we still failed to find one despite visits to half a dozen hotspots. We returned to Columbus late Sunday night and slept in on Labor Day. When we woke, my dad received an eBird alert that an Olive-sided Flycatcher was photographed at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary in Mansfield, Ohio. We drove there and spent four hours in the heat, walking trails and looking for the bird on exposed snags. We identified a few species of flycatcher, numerous Cedar Waxwings, but no birds with the desired vest. Tired, hot, and disappointed, we limped back to the car and steered towards home.
From the backseat, I suggested we stop at Blendon Woods Metro Park. It is our local birding patch and I hoped to salvage our day by seeing fall warblers. We scanned the trees in the parking lot, visited the feeders behind the Nature Center, hiked the Lake Trail, and checked the blinds that overlook the Walden Waterfowl Refuge. The park resembled a ghost town – it was difficult to find even a common Northern Cardinal. At the back blind, my dad noticed a solitary bird across the pond, perched on a dead snag. We both raised our binoculars and identified it as a flycatcher, but its distance made it difficult to make out details. It had several field marks that suggested Olive-sided Flycatcher, but this species would be especially rare in Blendon Woods. According to eBird, the park only reports one or two sightings per year. Eventually, the bird changed positions and flashed white patches towards the base of its wings – this field mark is distinctive for juvenile Olive-sided Flycatchers. My dad and I celebrated, but we wanted to be absolutely sure. Our binoculars magnify images eight-fold, but we also bird with a spotting scope that makes images appear sixty-fold larger. I ran back to the car, grabbed the scope, and returned to the blind hoping the bird had not flown away. Thankfully, it was still on the snag, and we peered through the scope. It was, indeed, a beautiful Olive-sided Flycatcher!
Reflecting on these experiences, it made me realize how many great birds are in our backyards and stellar Metro Parks. In both cases, I was able to see amazing birds, conquer challenges, and grow as a birder without traveling vast distances. To me, this is very exciting. It means that every time I walk outside, with binoculars hung from my neck, there is an opportunity for something truly special. This is why I bird.
Killian is an 11-year-old birder that lives in Gahanna, Ohio. His birding passion began with a Steller’s Jay in Lake Tahoe and has grown to nearly 500 species across North America. Birding complements his love for travel, adventure, and rock climbing. His favorite birding destinations are southeast Arizona, New Jersey’s Cape May; and any pelagic. He also loves birding in central Ohio’s Metro Parks, especially, Battelle Darby Creek, Blendon Woods, Glacier Ridge, Pickerington Ponds, and Walnut Woods. At home, he loves watching and listening to his favorite bird, the Carolina Wren.