Bachman’s Sparrows are strongly tied to longleaf pine habitat, and both have experienced dramatic declines in the past century. Longleaf pine stands once spanned across the southeastern United States, west through Louisiana and into East Texas. With its open understory dominated by wiregrass, and widely spaced longleaf pine trees, this habitat had more in common with a savannah than with a typical forest. Frequent fires kept shrubs, hardwoods, and other pine trees out. But decades of fire suppression, development, and conversion of longleaf pine stands into loblolly pine plantations have destroyed most of it.
Because maintaining the longleaf habitat requires frequent burnings, 95% of Bachman’s Sparrows currently lived on managed conservation lands (Birds of NC).
Sandhills Game Land represents one of the largest examples of intact longleaf pine ecosystem left in North Carolina.
The 60,000+ acres are maintained through active management, including controlled burning, and support populations of Red-cockaded woodpecker, Bob White Quail, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wild Turkey, and Bachman’s Sparrow.
In fact, Sandhills Game Land is one of the most productive Bachman’s Sparrow habitats in North Carolina, which is why it is the site of our annual Bachman’s Sparrow survey.
The survey is conducted by a team of people covering several routes individually. Route assignments are rotated throughout the week to avoid sampling bias, and to gain a measure of detectability. Each survey begins 30 minutes before dawn, and involves driving and walking through some difficult terrain. For instance, this year one of the service roads used for a particular route was completely flooded by beavers.
At another route, a short-lived forest fire burned out all the understory—during the week of the survey!
Researchers use an audio recording of a Bachman’s Sparrow song to lure them in, then we note how many respond, and from which direction.
Each bird counted is marked on a map, so that we can gain an approximation of where they are in the habitat. In addition to Bachman’s Sparrow, we also count Bob White Quail. Quail are much rarer, so hearing one is always a thrill!
If you’re looking to see a Bachman’s sparrow, here are the NC Birding Trail Sites where they are most likely to be found.