Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Little Brown Birds--Part 3

Will it never end?

This summer I made an attempt to organize my knowledge of sparrows (in my brain)--really learn the ones I knew, and begin to learn the ones I know are common here but am not familiar with. As I endeavoured to do this, I realized that I wasn't entirely sure which sparrows are common in my area, so I set about to learn that too.

(I talk about some of this process in a couple of posts: Little Brown Birds and Little Brown Birds--Part 2.) By the end of the breeding season I was deep in a little-brown-bird muddle.

But it didn't stop there. Mike at 10,000 Birds recently posted an appeal for help in identifying a bird he thought was either a song sparrow or a Lincoln's sparrow. I was game. The picture he had taken didn't quite look like a song sparrow to me, so I investigated the Lincoln's sparrow, a bird I don't know. I took the investigation too far and discovered that the Lincoln's sparrow is recorded as a breeding bird in many squares in my Breeding Bird Atlas region, including two just one square away from my square, 18UQ11 (i.e., 10 km), to the north (here's a link to the Lincoln's sparrow data in my region). Seems possible it was a breeding bird in my square too. But that boat has sailed--the breeding season is over and so is data collection for this particular Atlas.

A few days ago I saw my first tree sparrow of the season (see Feeder Birds). The tree sparrow is an easy sparrow to identify--rusty cap, mark in the centre of the breast, and big, like the northern breeding sparrows tend to be. I've heard that a number have been seen to the south of me, moving south over the last 10 days or so. I haven't seen one again here since that day, so I think that bird was just passing through. Later some are bound to come that will hang around for the winter, as they do every year. I've been keeping an eye out for them ever since I saw that first one.

Then today I glanced out the front door and see a group of juncos feeding on the seeds of some weeds that grew up between the paving stones of the front walk, in the company of a big sparrow. Tree sparrow, I hope. No. So what is it?

The other big sparrows I see in the spring and fall are the white-crowned and the white-throated. I think of both of these as "flashy" sparrows, not just little brown birds. The white-crowned has a quite striking black-and-white-striped head; the white-throated, a white throat, and heavy white eyebrow. This is not what the big sparrow hanging around with the juncos looks like. (I saw it a number of times throughout the day.) It has something of the look of a white-throated sparrow, but no white eyebrow, and not much flash. However according to Sibley's guide, "adults range from drab (tan-striped) to bright (white-striped) regardless of sex and age." And thus the white-throated sparrow enters the ranks of the little brown birds.

My only hope is that this muddle of sparrows will settle itself into some sort of order in my brain over the winter, and by spring I'll actually be able to at least separate the ones I know from the ones I don't.


Kingfisher said...

Thanks for sharing this struggle to differentiate between similar birds, particularly sparrows. I have the same struggle and am using a similar process to sort them out. I also desperately try to get a picture before they get away so I can show it to someone more experienced. I've been working on sparrows with white throats - and there are a lot of them!

Anonymous said...

fall sparrows are much more confusing to me than fall warblers-
don't discount the juveniles, that often make up a good part of any flock of sparrows this time of year, and are still in their juvenile plumage.
(Heres a link to a juvenile White-crowned sparrow)


Pamela Martin said...

Kingfisher: I may get a picture of this possible white-throated yet. It is still hanging around, but rain and light haven't favoured me yet.

Cindy: Thanks for the link to the beautiful photo--looks just right for a juvenile white-crowned, but what a tough call that would be to make in the field!

Mike said...

My wife and I once spent (I won't say wasted!) a good 15 minutes trying to determine the identity of an unfamiliar sparrow species in Central Park. Even our field guide couldn't help. It wasn't until we got home and really did the research did we discover that the ubiquitous white-striped race of White-throated Sparrows has a dull, tan-striped cousin. Little brown jobs indeed!

On a positive note, having positively identified a Savannah Sparrow (with some help from my friends!)just a few weeks ago, I've now recognized them on sight in the field. It's been said that wisdom comes suddenly, but for me, it feels like one bird at a time.

Gwyn Calvetti said...

I feel better after reading of your similar struggles. For me, the nemesis birds seem to have been Swamp, Fox and Song. Just how many variations do those Song Sparrows have, anyway?

Good luck unmuddling!