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Frank Gray

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Courtesy of Renee Wright
A group of six rare Henslow’s sparrows have made a home at Arrowhead Prairie.

Birders from all over arrive for rare sight

I can’t tell the difference between a sparrow and a wren, much less the difference between a Henslow’s sparrow and some other kind of sparrow, but the presence of the rare bird at a local nature preserve has bird watchers worked up.

Apparently, at a place called Arrowhead Prairie on Aboite Road, a top local birder, Jim Haw, spotted what is being called the largest concentration of nesting Henslow’s sparrows in northern Indiana. There were six of them.

This, I’m told, is a big deal because the bird, though it isn’t endangered, is scarce enough to be classified as a species of concern.

Just how big a deal is it, really? Big enough that a noted birder from New York City, a guy who is a guide for birders in Central Park, traveled here with a photographer a few days ago to get a glimpse of the bird. It was reminiscent of a scene from the book and movie “The Big Year,” about birders who travel the world trying to spot as many different bird species as possible.

This one revelation has led to a whole new set of revelations for the people who run the Little River Wetlands Project, a swampy 716-acre preserve near Engle Road, and the Arrowhead Prairie and Arrowhead Marsh.

Apparently, birders are coming from all over the state and some other states and staying in a motel next to the preserve to get a glimpse of some of the 200 or so species that hang out there. Arrowhead Prairie and Arrowhead Marsh, which are across the road from each other, are only about 10 minutes away, an added bonus for birders.

“It’s fascinating that a sophisticated birder from New York City would come all the way out there to see these nondescript birds,” said Renee Wright, communications director for the Little River Wetlands Project, who admits she’s not a big birder herself.

“When I first saw the post (about a rare bird on a birding website) I thought, ‘Isn’t that interesting,’ ” Wright said. “It took two birders from New York to make me think it might be a big deal.

“It’s very gratifying. We’ve worked very hard to build habitat. This is a sign that we know it’s working. These species are coming back and setting up shop.”

Joe Huguenard, executive director at Little River, who describes himself as a reptile guy and not a birder, was just as surprised as everyone else. He said the goal of establishing the Little River and Arrowhead preserves was all about restoring historic wetlands. Nobody ever thought they’d also be creating a haven for birders.

“We both live here and we’re just finding out about it (Henslow’s sparrow), and a guy from Manhattan has already been here,” Huguenard said.

“It’s like the canary in the mine,” Huguenard said. “It’s an indicator of what’s happening. (The habitat) is coming back.

“That little bird is our little canary that says the mine is now safe.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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