Nelson's Sparrow in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

This Nelson's Sparrow popped up before me in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto on 1 October 2017. Nelson's Sparrows are rarely-seen but regular migrants in southern Ontario. To see a Nelson's Sparrow in southern Ontario, one must know their peak migration time and search their preferred habitat. They are sometimes seen in spring, but fall is the best time to find them. Peak migration is late September to mid-October. They often arrive and depart with strong cold fronts. Most birds seen in southern Ontario are probably from the James Bay population Ammodramus nelsoni alter. See more about subspecies under last photo.


High counts of Nelson's Sparrows: 10 Nelson's Sparrows were seen in Hamilton on 30 September 2017 and reported on eBird. The apparent record for southern Ontario is held by Alan Wormington who saw 16 Nelson's Sparrows at Hillman Marsh near Point Pelee on 8 October 1995. This is probably the highest number seen on any one day in Ontario away from James Bay.


NELSON'S SPARROW VIDEO at Tommy Thompson Park

Former name for Nelson's Sparrow was Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Photo shows the long pointed tail feathers. Tommy Thompson Park, 1 Oct 2017


Timing: Best time of day is the first hour after sunrise. In October, the vegetation is often soaking wet from condensation and the birds will tend to sit up rather than get wet.


Habitat: Migrant Nelson's in southern Ontario usually inhabit marshes bordering large lakes and rivers. Best not to look for them in deep water marshes or thick stands of tall cattails. Instead, concentrate your search in the zone of grasses and sedges where the vegetation varies from knee to waist high (sometimes taller) and where the ground is moist to slightly wet. Nelson's are sometimes found on drier sites where lake levels have receded. Plant communities to search include: Scirpus and Carex (sedges), Spartina (Cord Grass), Phalaris (Canary Grass), Glyceria (Manna Grass) and other similar grasses and sedges, sometimes with a mixture of Typha (Cattail), Bidens (Beggar's Ticks) or Polygonum (Smartweed), and low bushes.


 Interestingly Nelson's Sparrows and Yellow Rails often share the same habitat. LeConte's Sparrows prefer drier habitats.

Subspecies: Nelson's Sparrow comprises three subspecies. Most birds seen in southern Ontario are the James Bay subspecies Ammodramus nelsoni alter. The Prairie subspecies nelsoni is more frequent in extreme southwestern Ontario. Migrants of these two subspecies are very difficult to separate in the field. Fall migrants in winter plumage are more heavily streaked below than spring birds in breeding plumage. The Acadian subspecies subvirgatus has not been recorded in Ontario, but should be looked for in eastern Ontario because it occurs in summer near Montreal.