A small, elusive sparrow of wet grasslands and marshes of interior North America, the buffy-faced Le Conte's Sparrow has been likened to a “twenty-dollar gold piece” if seen up close ( Roberts 1932c ). More often it is viewed only briefly as a “bit of wind-blown straw” as it flies away to drop again into dense cover ( Mengel 1980 ). It reluctantly flushes from observers, usually remaining “stubbornly in the field, creeping about like mice under mats of grass” ( Mengel 1965b ). When searching for Le Conte's Sparrows in Wisconsin, Robbins ( Robbins 1969 , Robbins 1991 ) found only 8 of 86 singing males on perches exposed enough to provide an identifiable view.
This secretive behavior made it difficult for early collectors to procure specimens of this species, and for ornithologists to study it. The species was first described by John Latham in 1790 from a specimen taken in Georgia; the species was named for John L. Le Conte, a physician friend of J.J. Audubon and a distinguished entomologist. The second specimen was taken in the early 1830s in North Dakota by Prince Maximilian von Wied; the third, also from North Dakota, in 1843 by John Bell (in company with J. J. Audubon); and the fourth in 1872 by Gideon Lincecum in Texas ( Wied 1858 , Allen 1886b , Walkinshaw 1968c ). In 1873 Elliot Coues discovered the species on its breeding grounds in North Dakota ( Coues 1878d , Walkinshaw 1937a ). The first nest was found in Manitoba, in 1882 as first claimed by E. T. Seton ( Seton 1890a ), or perhaps in 1883 by W. Raine ( Raine 1894b ). By the time Walkinshaw ( Walkinshaw 1968c ) prepared his species account of Le Conte's Sparrow for A. C. Bent's life-history series, he estimated that not more than 50 nests had been found; in the 30 years since then not that many more nests have been found ( Lowther 1996a ); but in 1998 began a 4-year study of grassland birds in North Dakota and Minnesota that accumulated observations of 50 more nests ( Winter et al. 2005b ).