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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Case of the Unsolved Mystery Sparrow


LBJs are the hardest of the hard. LBJ stands for "Little Brown Job" and if identifying a little brown bird is a job then I sure have one tough job here. See if you can identify this sparrow as it is a true LBJ!!!!

In my January 10th post I mentioned seeing an "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow, a pale variation of Savannah Sparrow. I have changed my mind about its identification and I now believe that it's a species of tern, nah - just kidding, I think that it looks more like a Vesper Sparrow than an "Ipswich" although I am definitely not ruling out Song or Savannah. I have sent the photo of the sparrow to a few people and have also put the photo on some Internet sites asking for help. Most people so far have said Song Sparrow (7 in total), 3 people have said Vesper Sparrow, 7 people have said Savannah Sparrow (counting me) and 3 "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow. Unfortunately a very few people are one hundred percent positive about their id. Here are some of the remarks people have made about the sparrow:

"The supercilium is too well defined and the breast streaking is too extensive for Vesper. I'm on the fence between Savannah and Song currently." Brennan Mulrooney

"i don't think this bird has the broad/prominent malar nor the broad breast streaking of a Song nor does it have the right facial pattern (particularly the framing) of a Vesper." Warrech

"Regarding the sparrow, I consulted Peterson, Sibley and National Geographic field guides. They all give the two most important field marks for vesper sparrow as the white eye ring and the white outer tail feathers. Your photo shows a white eye ring very clearly and if you look at the tail, I think you can see a white line. The third field mark, rufous lesser coverts, are said to be harder to see and not always visible. Savannah sparrows are rather variable but the ones I am used to seeing have eyebrow stripes that are noticeably yellowish. In "Birds of Massachusetts" savannah sparrow is said to be "uncommon but regular in winter" while vesper sparrow is "rare and erratic" in winter. Of course, you were in Rhode Island but not that far from Massachusetts as the sparrow flies. All in all, I think vesper sparrow is more likely from the appearance in the photo." John Goodchild (my grandfather)

"I also agree that it is a Savannah, though I would not be terribly surprised, if the bird is observed again to find out it is a Song.
In addition to the mentioned reasons for it not being a Vesper, it is clearly far too red for that, there should be no red edging on Vesper sparrow tertials, whereas this bird clearly has that.
But why my feeling is that it is a Savannah over a Song (bear in mind, this is probably the most variable sparrow around here) is harder to pin down. The beak looks small, but it does not look that small, the streaking looks thin, but not that thin, the body looks brownish-reddish, but it does not look that brownish-reddish and the tail looks short, but it doesn't look that short. So the collection of these halfway wrong features for Song Sparrow make me think it is a Savannah. But the reddest, darkest Savannah I have ever encountered.
To muddy the waters further, in the last or second to last one of Christian's pics, there is some white visible, but I think it is just the undertail coverts, though that almost made me jump to the Vesper camp despite all the reasons it is not one.
Went out there a couple days ago and, unfortunately, did not see this bird - not that I knew to look for it then, but everything segregated easily into the Song/Tree/Savannah/Towhee camps.
Good luck - this will probably be argued for awhile (a good thing)."Eric LoPresti

Another birder has also apparently seen our mystery sparrow. He was calling it a Vesper Sparrow originally but now he too calls it a "Sparrow sp". Here a link to his Flickr page where you can see his photos of the bird. And here's another link to my brothers photo of the bird.

It sure would be great if it is a Vesper Sparrow - it would be a lifer!

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