The Savannah Sparrows of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

/, Montana, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Savannah Sparrows/The Savannah Sparrows of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Savannah Sparrow singing on old fence railSavannah Sparrow singing on old fence rail – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/350, ISO 500, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 300mm, natural light

Last week I spent four days at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge looking for birds to photograph and enjoying the beautifully wild scenery. Trips to the refuge always give me a peaceful feeling and this visit reminded me of how much I need to feel at peace, rested and immersed in nature. The Centennial Mountains have a lot less snow than they had last month but I could still see some snow left up high. The valley was drier than it had been in June but the mosquitoes were much worse. Insect repellent; a must, did seem to keep the mosquitoes away.

Savannah Sparrow with preySavannah Sparrow with prey – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/320, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

I often say “you never know unless you go” when it comes to finding birds in any location. Going to locations at different times of the year can often provide opportunities to photograph species that earlier or later in the year may not be there or might not be there in abundance.

In June I did see Savannah Sparrows but not in the large numbers I saw there last week. It seemed that every where I looked in the valley there were Savannah Sparrows perched on old fence posts, rails and shrubs. A great many of the sparrows were calling from those perches and hunting for prey for their hungry chicks. I could see the birds repeatedly making trips to thick grassy mounds with various prey in their bills as shown in the image above.

Fluffed up Savannah Sparrow on an old fence postFluffed up Savannah Sparrow on an old fence post – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/250, ISO 400, +1.0, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 300mm, natural light

I never saw the chicks of these Savannah Sparrows, they nest on the ground and the nests are usually in thick grasses or sedges which makes it difficult to see the nest at all.  Perhaps one day I will see Savannah Sparrow fledglings as they leave their protected nests.

I do not do much nest photography out of concerns for disturbing the chicks or adults, disrupting their normal behavior and I am also hesitant to approach a nest because my presence may alert a predator of the nest location. With these Savannah Sparrows I would have had to make a close approach and pull the grasses aside to get photographs of the nestlings and I feel that puts them at far too much risk. For me, the safety of the birds is far more important than whatever image I might take.  So I avoid it unless I can keep a reasonable distance and cause the least disruption possible.

Yes, photos of baby birds are cute and probably sell well but personally I couldn’t stand myself if I caused the loss of even one chick.

Savannah Sparrow fluttering its wingsSavannah Sparrow fluttering its wings – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1500, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

These Savannah Sparrows were nearly as much fun to observe as they were to photograph. They are very active birds and it was a challenge to keep up with them in the viewfinder as they ran along the fence rails. They called, sang, preened, fluffed and stretched. They are very active birds and it can be difficult to keep up with them as they scurry along the rails and weave their way between the grasses that have overgrown the bottom section of the fence.
Savannah Sparrow with food

Savannah Sparrow with food – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/320, ISO 400, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

There were times when the adult sparrows would arrive on the old fence with a bill full of prey and stay there for about 15 minutes before they flew into the grasses near their nest while at other times they ate the prey themselves. In their bills I saw caterpillars, dragonfly nymphs, newly emerged damselflies, mosquito hawks and once even saw a yellow flower petal in amongst the insects.

Savannah Sparrow wing stretchSavannah Sparrow wing stretch – Nikon D200, f7.1, 1/1250, ISO 400, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light

Normally I prefer natural perches over man made ones when I am photographing birds but I like the weatherworn posts and railings of this old fence, how the wood had been bleached gray by the elements and how the edges have been softened over time.

The Savannah Sparrows were delightful, they were very close to the campsite plus they were active all day long and because of diffused light from clouds overhead I could photograph them most of the day (when it wasn’t pouring rain or hailing). I could hear then chittering before the sun rose over the mountains to the east.

I’ll look for them again at Red Rock Lakes NWR, one of my favorite locations not only for bird photography but for reconnecting myself to nature and with the beauty it shares.



  1. Julie Brown July 20, 2011 at 7:55 am

    You have a very nice series of poses of this cute bird. I especially like the third one down.

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