Story and Photography by Jim Clark
One facet of nature photography that has always fascinated me is the natural history of what I’m photographing. Maybe it comes from my love for nature or maybe just because I’m a curious guy. I’d like to think it is in my DNA. Regardless of its origin or catalyst, the natural world has always been a critical component of my fabric of life.
So on occasion I will offer tidbits of natural history of select creatures I have photographed. Some may be high-profile, charismatic megafauna, but more often than not, I will offer insights on lesser known but equally fascinating creatures and landscapes. To start off, here’s a little natural history about one of my favorite marsh critters: the seaside sparrow.
The seaside sparrow—Ammodramus maritimus—is a common summer resident of the salt and brackish marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. A marsh with a combination of cordgrass, black needle rush and cattail is a great recipe for seaside sparrow habitat.
During my photo shoots along the Eastern Shore, I often explore the 30,000-acre Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area located near Elliot Island, Maryland. Fishing Bay’s expansive salt marsh is a prime location to see and photograph this diminutive marsh native. As a nature photographer, the remoteness of the location also adds to the experience: the more isolated, the better.
The seaside sparrow is what many refer to as an LBJ: little brown jobber, a term used for nondescript sparrows. But while drab in appearance, this dark-olive colored LBJ does have a splash of yellow just in front of the eye and a spot of white on the chin. Upon closer inspection, you might see slight indistinct streaking on the breast.
The seaside’s song is a buzzy jumble of notes that is a distinctive summer melody of the salt marsh. Its song is often compared to that of the red-winged blackbird—only softer and more lively.
Males sing while perched on the top of a grass stalk or bush, but they will also sing when in flight. If alarmed, they descend into the marsh or fly a short distance and then drop into the vegetation.
Seaside sparrows fly low over the marsh, usually just above the highest cordgrass stalks. Their fluttering flight is a key to their identification.
Foraging primarily on the marsh ground, seaside sparrows feed on small snails, crabs, insects and spiders. I have even seen them run while on the soft marsh mud as their unusually large feet help support them while they pursue their prey.
For the images here, I used a 600mm lens with a 1.4 extender and patiently waited for the male to become accustomed to my presence as it sang from its perch. With small steps, I was able to get closer without disturbing him. The expanse of green marsh behind him added a pleasing and complementary background to the composition.
For me, learning about the seaside sparrow greatly enhanced my enjoyment in the field. That’s the beauty of intellectual curiosity—the more you know.
A past NANPA President, Jim is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer and nature photography instructor for Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.