Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Little Brown Birds--Part 2

After I posted Little Brown Birds I had a tickling feeling that there was a bird I was forgetting. Then it came to me: the clay-colored sparrow (US spellings are the convention for bird species names). This is another bird that I should be able to find here--not as common as the field sparrow, chipping sparrow or song sparrow (or the savannah sparrow--also very common, but since we have no savannah I always forget to include it).

The clay-colored sparrow only showed up in nine percent of the squares in my region (Region 21--Kingston) in the last Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, but this time, as of the end of last year's data collection, 37 percent of the squares found evidence of these birds breeding. In my first post on sparrows I make offhand reference to sparrows not mentioned as "a few rarities," and leave the matter there. But 37 percent is not rare beyond the realm of likely--and worse, another atlasser working in my square last year found a pair of clay-colored sparrows here. So it is up to me, in this final year of data collection, to upgrade the breeding evidence if I can--and that means being able to identify the bird.

The clay-colored sparrow's song is unlike that of the other sparrows in this group. It consists entirely of buzzes at a single pitch, repeated several times, rather slowly. I've heard this once or twice, only once knowing what it was, but I've never knowingly seen one of these guys. Click here to see a couple of good pictures of this bird. The page will open in a new window and loads slowly (for those of us on dial-up), but is worth the wait. Or go to the Wildspace page for a sample of the song and more information.

The picture at the Cornell site linked above make this look like a very distinctive bird--but unless the light is just right, this is the quintessential little brown bird. So here are the things I'll be trying to keep in mind. Clear breast (described as grey, but that won't actually help much, nor will the grey nape of the neck that shows so clearly in the photo), which distinguish it from the song, savannah and vesper sparrows. That leaves the chipping, field and grasshopper sparrows. Chipping sparrow is easy, in the breeding season it has a bright rusty cap and a well-defined eyebrow. The field sparrow is just so terribly plain, rusty cap and complete eye ring, but these are usually barely noticeable in the field. But then there's the grasshopper sparrow. The difference between these is mainly in the markings on the head, something I always find difficult to take in--i.e., median stripe (down the middle of the head), is it white, buff, grey? Is it very distinct?

Now that I know the bird's song, I'm hoping that they sing on into July, as many but not all birds do. And I'll keep my ears open.

So, to recap, the little brown birds in Thomasburg are the chipping sparrow, song sparrow, field sparrow, savannah sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, and the clay-colored sparrow. This excludes the swamp sparrow, also around here, but not a field and hamlet bird, and the Henslow's sparrow, an actual rare bird. Seven little brown birds--how hard could it be?

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