Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: The Savannah Sparrow


savannah sparrow fred nisenholzPhoto by Fred Nisenholz

A few years back I had the privilege of leading a field trip to the Meadowlands for our regional meeting of the National Audubon Society. Chapters from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania met for the weekend in Bergen County and asked the Bergen County Audubon Society to arrange a field trip. Needless to say I chose DeKorte Park.

As our group crossed over the Transco Trail onto the Lyndhurst Nature Reserve we could see an adult Bald Eagle perched in the distance. I was very proud to show off the symbol of our country to our first-time Meadowlands guests, but I could see from the look on most of their faces that they were not impressed, to say the least.

“We see Eagles all the time,” one of the New York representatives said. “We really want to see the Sparrows especially a Savannah.” Even though we were due back at the hotel for meetings, they were not going anywhere until I found one of these special little birds of the grasslands, and I am happy to report DeKorte Park did not disappoint.

The Savannah Sparrow is a New Jersey threatened species during nesting season. The Sparrow gets its name not from the habitat it enjoys as one might think. It was actually named by famed 19th century ornithologist Alexander Wilson for a specimen collected in Savannah, Ga.   Although numerous nationwide, the Savannah Sparrow is very susceptible to environmental changes. In much of New Jersey, over development brought about the loss of open fields and grasslands that the Savannah Sparrow needs for survival and breeding.

This is what makes the Meadowlands and its expanse of open space very important to the Savannah Sparrow’s survival. I asked Chris Takacs, one of the top birders in the Meadowlands, about the Savannah Sparrow.

“The best time to see Savannahs is late September through October,” Chris told me. “They can be found on most grassy fields or grassy edges along the Transco Trail and the Lyndhurst Nature Rreserve at DeKorte Park, Harrier Meadow in North Arlington, and along Disposal Road. The birds show up here in the Meadowlands during migration to coincide with the plants on the landfills going to seed. Even a plant like mugwort is used as a food source.”

The Meadowlands is a vital migratory stopover for the Savannahs, but it is also an important breeding habitat. “They seem to prefer the fallow fields created on landfill areas like the Kingsland Landfill,” Chris said. “I’ve observed 40-plus birds in late June and early July in the Meadowlands. After working with Michael Newhouse and his migration stopover ecology project for six fall seasons, we felt that upwards of 10,000 Savannah Sparrows pass though the Kingsland /Erie/ and Harrier Meadow areas during migration. Some are stopping for a few days to fatten up using the plants and bugs as a food source.”

Savannah Sparrows are brown above and white below, with crisp streaks throughout. Their upper parts are brown with black streaks, and the under parts are white with thin brown or black streaks on the breast and flanks. Look for a small yellow patch on the face in front of the eye. Compared to some other species of sparrows, the Savannah is easier to spot as they do not hide and skulk in the grasses as much.

Our Meadowlands is a thriving, critical habitat for many threatened and endangered species, including the Savannah Sparrow. As you look toward the skies for the Eagles and Peregrines, don’t forget to look down once in a while too so you don’t miss birds like the Savannah Sparrows of the Meadowlands.

For more information on the Savannah Sparrow, go to

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