Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Henslow's Sparrow - Centronyx henslowii
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General Comments The Henslow's Sparrow has always been one of the rarest sparrows in North America, and being a grassland species, it also has been declining at a fairly precipitous rate in recent decades. Its small nesting range is limited mainly to the northeastern quadrant of the United States, south to the Coastal Plain of eastern North Carolina. There are a few old summer reports, including a conclusive breeding record in 1948, from the mountains and Piedmont of the state; however, the species is "long historical" in summer in these provinces. It winters only in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plain, and because it is a very secretive bird at that season, finding one is always a red-letter event. It nests in wet meadows and grasslands, but not in marshes, and such habitats are rare in nature. In North Carolina, such habitats are strongly man-created, mainly in cleared nonriverine swamp and pocosin forest that are now maintained in early succession by mowing (or burning), at two large Voice of America (VOA) sites; however, a few small saplings are essential for song perches. Some birds nest in recently clearcut pine plantations, but only for several years (as woody vegetation becomes too tall). For whatever reason, recent reports from these latter sites are rare (owing to lack of birding at clearcuts?). In 2017, the species was upgraded from State Special Concern to State Endangered to reflect this precarious nesting situation. In winter, Henslow's require specific habitats -- primarily open stands of Longleaf Pine, with dense Wiregrass cover that has been burned between the previous winter to summer, such that ample Wiregrass seeds are present for food. The birds do not winter in dense Wiregrass cover that did not flower/fruit during the same year. A few have been found in wet powerline clearings or other damp grassy fields.
Breeding Status Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status E
U.S. Status
State Rank S1B,S1N
Global Rank G4
Coastal Plain Summer resident, and winter resident, over parts of the region; strongly declining. In summer, still relatively common (formerly very common) at the VOA A (Beaufort) site, but uncommon at the VOA B (Pitt) site. Rare elsewhere in a fairly narrow north-south band through the eastern and central portions of the region, at least formerly (1980's through the early 2000's), ranging west to Gates, eastern Edgecombe, and central Brunswick, and east to Bertie, Washington, western Onslow, and central Brunswick. In winter, uncommon, local, and very secretive (easily overlooked) from the the Croatan National Forest (Craven) southwestward, within the Longleaf Pine belt; very rare westward to the Sandhills, and casual elsewhere (i.e., the northern 70% of the province). Casual to very rare within the province in migration. Peak counts: up to 198 singing males on territory were counted at the combined Voice of America sites A and B in May 1998 [Chat 62:198 link]. The best counts in recent years are: 92 singing males at VOA A on 5 Apr 2023; and 41 at the VOA A site on 27 May 2020.
Piedmont Spring transient and former breeder; strongly declining. Currently, casual to very rare spring migrant, with only a few records in the past several decades; formerly, a very rare to rare spring migrant, as witnessed by at least 8 reports from the Raleigh area from 1893 - 1909. Conclusively nested near Charlotte in 1948, with summer records for that area for several years previously. A handful of birds at Chapel Hill were seen and heard on many dates in 1932 and may have nested. Apparently nested in Rowan County around 1921-22. Casual in fall, with the only published reports at that season being one photographed at Greensboro (Guilford) on 8 Nov 2013 [Chat 78:36 link], and one photographed at Rea Farms in southern Mecklenburg on 12 Oct 2020. The only published winter reports are of one at Pee Dee NWR, Anson, on 3 Jan 1998; and one photographed at Latta Plantation Nature Preserve (Mecklenburg), on 29 Feb and 1 Mar 2020.
Mountains Transient, and possible former breeder; strongly declining. Casual to very rare in spring; mainly Apr to early May; also one late May report. There are several records from the summer in the 1960's from the Crumpler area of Ashe that suggested local breeding. Casual to very rare also in fall, with apparently just six known records -- one at Jackson Park (Henderson) on 6 Oct 2013; one at Warren Wilson College (Buncombe) on 30 Oct 2013; one at the latter site from 4-8 Nov 2014; one photographed at Hooper Lane (Henderson) on 25 Oct 2021; one photographed near Valle Crucis (Watauga) on 14-15 Oct 2023; and one near Brevard (Transylvania) on 30 Oct 2023. As one of the spring records (2014) is also from Warren Wilson College, it is highly likely that the same bird was involved in all three sightings. However, it should not be assumed to have overwintered there in 2013-14. One winter report: 1, Pisgah Forest (Transylvania), on 1 Jan 2006 [Chat 70:56 link] is open to question.
Finding Tips The species can still be found at VOA site A, mostly in the eastern half of the site. Birds can be hard to find now at VOA site B. It is helpful to view birds through a scope, as through binoculars the birds seen perched on top of a small sapling typically are just small brown spots!
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Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-11], LeGrand[2023-08-10], LeGrand[2023-03-31]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.