Monday, October 12, 2009

Maine Sparrows

My last blog post from Maine showed off photos of gulls and told how to tell some of them apart. Another bird that can be frustratingly similar in appearance are the sparrows. Frankly, I still get a lot of them wrong. That said, there are some things you can look at and sometimes you can quickly tell which type of sparrow you are seeing from some simple observations.


The first thing I try to determine is the color or pattern of the breast feathers. I try to decide if they have a clean, evenly colored breast, or a central spot on a clean chest, or instead have streaks on the chest.

Some, like these two Chipping Sparrows in the photo above have a clean, gray breast. No streaks or spots. They also have a brown cap and a black line through the eye. There is a sparrow that looks almost the same, the American Tree Sparrow, but it will have a black dot right in the center of the chest. (And the Chipping Sparrows are summertime birds and the American Tree Sparrows are wintertime birds, so there is often more than one factor that can help with identification.)

This one is the widespread and common Song Sparrow. The photo isn't very good, but what one can look for with these is a smudgy dark central splotch on a streaky, mottled chest. A Song Sparrow has rounded tail feathers.

The faraway photo reminds me how hard it can be to see some birds, mixed in with leaves and twigs, moving around just as I'm about to see them with the binoculars, and so forth. If you have a scope, you can sometimes get good looks at a bird that isn't made wary by your proximity.

At first I thought this one was a Song Sparrow, but it breaks a couple of rules for Song Sparrow. The central smudge isn't very big and the streaks along the chest and sides of the body are very fine and delicate ... and the tail feathers are not rounded. They're spiky and pointed at the tips, making a V-shaped notch between them. The supercillium (eyebrow) is buffy, and for all these reasons I think this is another very common and widespread sparrow, the Savannah Sparrow.

Finally, though this one does not show much on the chest it displays a prominent white throat and a small yellow spot in front of the eye ... the White-throated Sparrow.
UPDATE 12/1/2009: A fellow birder looked at this and corrected me ... this is a Swamp Sparrow, not a White-throated. I'll be blogging all about it today, so go find that post and learn along with me!
I like the ones that have a name that speaks to what to look for ... like White-throated or Golden-crowned or White-crowned.
UPDATE 12/1/2009: On the other hand, the names can deceive as well. I saw a Palm Warbler in Maine, and there are no Palm trees there. The Swamp Sparrow is not always in a swamp.
There are a lot of Sparrows and learning to tell them apart can be fun if you don't let it become frustrating. Just start picking out the easy ones first, and the harder identifications will come later.

3 comments:

Robert Mortensen said...

Great post Jonathan! I check your blog every time you update it. I am just starting to get to the point in my birding life where I am patient enough and willing to appreciate the finer details that distinguish gulls and sparrows. Blog posts like yours help me to quickly learm some ID tips.

the casbah kitten said...

You know me...I like the White Crowned Sparrows because they're easy!

Bill S. said...

Hawks, gulls and sparrows all give me fits when trying to identify. I have an expert birder nearby that I forward the photos to and he quickly can identify them. Great post and pictures.