A small, elusive sparrow of wet grasslands and marshes of interior North America, the buffy-faced LeConte's Sparrow has been likened to a “twenty-dollar gold piece” if seen up close (1). More often it is viewed only briefly as a “bit of wind-blown straw” as it flies away to drop again into dense cover (2). It reluctantly flushes from observers, usually remaining “stubbornly in the field, creeping about like mice under mats of grass” (3). When searching for the LeConte's Sparrow in Wisconsin, Robbins (4, 5) found that many males sang from perches hidden within grasses; e.g., only 8 of 86 singing males were 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. LeConte, a physician friend of John James 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 (6, 7, 8). In 1873, Elliot Coues discovered the species on its breeding grounds in North Dakota (9, 10). The first nest was found in Manitoba in 1882, as first claimed by E. T. Seton (11), or perhaps in 1883 by W. Raine (12). By the time Walkinshaw (8) prepared his species account of the LeConte's Sparrow for A. C. Bent's life-history series, he estimated that not more than 50 nests had been found. In the subsequent 30 years, not many more nests were found (13); but starting in 1998, a 4-year study of grassland birds in North Dakota and Minnesota accumulated observations of 50 more nests (14).