Wednesday, February 03, 2010

UPDATED! Rio Grande Valley, Birding Day 1, Report 3: Sparrow School!

Thanks to comments confirming IDs, I can now add some to this post. Thanks, John, Felicia, and Elizabeth!

I don't know if I've mentioned it, but for a while during my time at the Marsh House, I got really into sparrows. I was reading Mike McDowell's blog on a daily basis, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could on the various sparrows I saw on the marsh and at my feeders. I racked up a pretty impressive yardlist of sparrows, with Chipping, Field, White-crowned, White-throated, Swamp, Fox, Song, and American Tree sparrows all making regular appearances.

It's been a while since I was studying sparrows intensively, however, as it's been a while since I left the Marsh House. Besides, I'm now waaaaay farther south than Pennsylvania, so some of those sparrows that were so familiar to me up there don't even come down this far (I'm talking to you, Fox and Tree sparrows). So I'm hoping you'll all help me out with this new crop of sparrows, all seen at Estero Llano Grande State Park. I'll just put up the photos and my best guesses, and you guys can just set me right with your bird-braininess. (I meant that as a compliment!)
Late in the day, Estero Llano Grande State Park

First, I'll list the species that can be found in the RGV at this time of year; no sense talking myself into thinking I'm seeing a Baird's Sparrow or something when they don't even come down here. I'm at least realistic enough to check the range maps first! This list was compiled from RTP's Field Guide to the Birds of Texas and the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (which I really like because it has the range maps right next to the descriptions and illustrations of the birds). Here's our list of choices:
Field
Cassin's
Chipping
Clay-colored
Lark
Grasshopper
Nelson's Sharp-tailed
Seaside (we were about five miles north of the Rio Grande River and about thirty miles inland)
Savannah
Lincoln's
Song (though this is too far south, according to Ntl Geo guide)
Swamp
Vesper
White-throated
White-crowned

Here we go!

1. Please just tell me these aren't female Red-winged Blackbirds. I thought so at first, but these birds looked too dark to me.UPDATE: They are indeed lady RWBL. I should've gone with the first instinct instead of trying to overthink it.



And is it just me, or do they have the two-color bill (pink on bottom, black on top) of the... no, this is certainly not an American Tree Sparrow. Never mind. I'll just be quiet now.

On the chance that you'll see more than I did in the "group" photos I took of these birds, here's an uncropped shot to make huge and look at (because I know you've got nothing better to do than geek out over sparrows!)--
Are these just lady RWBL or what? I've seen those before, but these looked different somehow. Now I'm starting to think I'm a fool. I know what the problem is, though: I saw the list the rangers were keeping at the first big observation deck; they had Lincoln's, Savannah, Swamp, and even American Pipits--you name it. Now I'm trying to make every brown streaky bird into something exotic!

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

2. Moving on! UPDATE! Song Sparrow!


Look at that bird; couldn't you just scream Clay-colored Sparrow!? Okay, maybe not. I found it interesting that he sat on his haunches like that the whole time I watched him. Is he a juvenile? At this time of year? I wouldn't put it past those booger house sparrows to be breeding in the winter, you know.

3. Look at this little bird:Song Sparrow? But where's his hatpin spot?
UPDATE--Savannah Sparrow--John pointed out the pink bill and short tail. Nice! I'd heard them before and seen them from a distance, but now I feel like I'll know them right off. I hope.
I know you're saying, "didn't you get a picture of his back?" Yes, I did! I wish these birds had sung a little bit--NONE of them were singing when I watched them. That sure would've helped.
How are you feeling about this one?


4. The one with the long flat forehead:
It's the Lincoln's, isn't it?! Yeah, just kidding. It can't be. But what the heck is it? UPDATE! I had suspected a Pipit, especially because that weird head shape didn't match any sparrows. I knew they'd seen American Pipits from that big observation deck across the pond, so I should've known. Don't know that I'll count this as a lifer, however, as I was not able to make the ID myself. I even took the Lincoln's Sparrow off the lifer update list to the right, because I didn't have a pic and I couldn't for the life of me remember which bird it was. So the American Pipit remains a potential lifer for me, but having this photo to study will make my next sighting a good one!

5. Finally, what I thought was a sparrow but is a Yellow-rumped Warbler, I think:
I see the hint of the yellow on his sides and on his rump (though it may just be a pixel-illusion), and his warbler beak. It's a YRWA, isn't it? UPDATE: John and Elizabeth confirmed that it's a YRWA. He looks so smooth, though, don't you think? Almost phoebe-ish in his shapeliness. Usually they look like little blurs flitting through the trees, but this guy stopped and posed for me. America's Top Yellow-rumped Model!

I sure hope you sparrow buffs show me some love and help me with these. At this point, I don't even want them for the lifelist--if I can't ID them with surety even after staring at their photos, I don't feel like they belong on the list. I learned a lot about shorebirds by studying photos and noticing general types and shapes. Sparrows just seem to defeat me sometimes. I like the easy ones--Fox, Field ID'd by his call, Chipping, Tree -- those are gimmes. Too many times I've stared at the same streaky-breasted head-stripy birds and been lost.

I know some people are "naturals" at remembering bird songs or field marks. I have trouble remembering my phone number. I may not be a natural, and my list may be meager after four years of effort--but, as they say, it is what it is. I am what a am: a beginning birder.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...

1. RW Blackbird (females)

2. Song Sparrow

3. Savannah Sparrow (note the short tail & pink bill)

4. Not sure -- maybe a pipit, but I can't judge the bill & shape very well on a small screen

5. Yellow-rumped Warbler

I love watching sparrows. It's hard to pick a favorite, but it might be swamp sparrow.

Felicia said...

Cool sparrow collection--I hope you get even more on the rest of your trip. BTW, a friend of mine, who's a big sparrow geek, says not all Song Sparrows show that dot on their breasts, and other kinds of sparrows sometimes do—so it's not a sure-fire field mark.

John said...

After a bit more review, I'll stick with pipit for #4.

Elizabeth said...

I'm always making Song Sparrows into fancy sparrows, so I won't guess on your sparrows, but I agree that 4. is a pipit and 5. is a yellow-rumped warbler.

dguzman said...

Anon--indeed, Comrade.

John--thank you! So they WERE RWBL and it WAS a pipit! YES! I had wanted to venture a guess but I tell you--after staring at the guides and the pics for the hours it took to do that post, by the end of it I could've called a house sparrow an Ivory-billed WP! And thank you for the ID tips too--I've heard Savannahs but never seen one, so this is nice! My fave sparrow is definitely the Fox Sparrow--I love the color.

Felicia--I'm beginning to think that VERY FEW show the dot on the breast! At least not the ones I've seen in TX. In PA, they did; it was a reliable clue along with the other markings and the song. Down here, though--crazy!

Elizabeth--glad I'm not the only one!

Anonymous said...

Here's my take on these:
1. Rw Blackbird (females)
2. Lincoln's Sparrow
3. Savannah Sparrow
4. Am. Pipit
5. Yellow-rumped Warbler
I really think #2 is a Lincoln's.

Hap in New Hope (MN)

John said...

Tail length is very useful for differentiating sparrows. Melospiza sparrows (like Song) have medium length tails while Savannahs and Ammodramus sparrows (like Nelson's) have very short tails. Spizella sparrows (like Chipping & Field) have proportionately long tails. So it can be a quick way to tell what you're dealing with if a bird looks odd in other respects.

Regarding #2, the buffy colors on the flanks and neck might suggest Lincoln's, but other aspects rule that out. The breast streaking is not as fine or as dense as one finds on a typical Lincoln's. The buffy areas are not as extensive, and the bill is too thick. The cheek patch on a typical Lincoln's is also a lot more brown than this bird's and contrasts more with the gray supercilium. Buffy flanks are a common variation in Song Sparrows; I probably see as many Songs with them as without them.

Beth in NYC said...

Delia, is there a rule which says you can't put birds you can't initially ID on your life list. You did see them, even if you don't know what they are. You have the pictures and the people to help you ID the bird later. I can understand holding off until the ID is confirmed.

Anonymous said...

Hello D, sorry for the mis-id
of that sparrow. John sure gives
a compelling argument for song
sparrow. What threw me was the
gray face and upperparts. I have
never seen such a gray song sparrow. The posture did bother me
though. Also, you mentioned Song
not being found that far south,
and Lincoln's had been reported
there, so I let that sway me some.
Way to go John, good eye!
Hap in New Hope (MN)

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