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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Return to "The Case of the Unsolved Mystery Sparrow"

We all recognize that everyone is an individual and everything is an individual. Birds do not vary from this time honored rule. Yet some birds individuality can be more easily recognized than others. It is quite common for a birder to scan a flock of Canada Geese and come across one of these unique individuals; a bird with an all white head or perhaps a bird that lacks the Canada Goose's prominent white cheek. It is thus understandable that identification of some common bird could quickly turn into something much bigger.

Ipswich Sparrow, Middletown, RI
The white eye-ring and the pink bill; both these field marks suggest Vesper Sparrow.
Photo by Christian Nunes

Some of you may remember the post I put up in January of last year. This post described my dilemma after coming across a sparrow which bore such a resemblance to both a Song (SOSP) and a Savannah Sparrow (SAVS), and equally to a Vesper (VESP). It seemed at the time, and still does today, unidentifiable. Today I plan to return to this birds strange and quite mysterious features and see if I can shed some light on it.

At first glance this bird appears to be a Savannah Sparrow but on closer inspection the birds broad malar stripe and the lack of of yellow on the lores suggest that this bird is a Song Sparrow (although not all SAVS have yellow lores). Yet now we notice the dainty pink bill and the spotting at the base of the lateral throat-stripes (the lateral throat-stripes are squeezed tightly in between the malar and the throat). The throat-stripe is dark and unspotted at the base in the SOSP. Now I'm sure you're all as confused me.

Ipswich Sparrow, Middletown, RI
Notice the broad, buff malar and the strange colored streaking on the underparts.
Photo by Christian Nunes

So far it sounds that it's more likely a SAVS yet we still have not ruled out the VESP. This species seems quite unlikely due to the season and its rareness in the general area. But despite these facts some field marks seem to fit this species well although while others work against it. The VESP is a large drab sparrow, usually found in pastures and fields, it's two identifying field marks are it's white outer tail feathers which flash when in flight and the rufous coloring on the lesser coverts, which is unmistakable when seen but unfortunately these feathers usually remain hidden. Seeing that neither the tail or the lesser coverts weren't easily visible they didn't help us much.

The eye-ring is large and very white, this suggests a VESP. The crown seems to be streaked heavily, although each streak is very light. Yet there is a greater number of field marks which rule out a VESP: the malar stripe doesn't seem to wrap around behind the cheek, the back half of the supercilium seems to light and broad, the streaking on the underparts seems far to dark and thick, and like the SOSP the lateral throat stripe is unspotted.

Savannah Sparrow?
Notice the thin streaking on the crown also suggesting Vesper Sparrow.
Photo by Ben Shamgochian

Enter "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow. The "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow is a large very pale subspecies of SAVS which breeds only on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and Winters all along the East coast. Although those of you that have seen my photo may be wondering why I would be considering an "Ipswich" when the bird in my photo is so dark. I tend to think that the photo I took is too dark. When comparing my shot with my brothers photo of the same bird taken at the same time one finds the color difference shocking. Also some photos of the same bird were taken by Christian Nunes (which seem to be in between mine and my brothers photos lighting wise) and by some New Jersey birder (who I don't know the name of), both ID'd it as an "Ipswich".

Ipswich Sparrows and American Tree Sparrow
Compared with the "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow on the right hand side our bird appears much darker, and all around different.
Photo by Christian Nunes

Then there is always the possibility that this bird is a hybrid. Ten percent of all bird species hybridize, eight percent of these are Passerines. Sparrows do occasionally hybridize, most hybrids are usually derive from birds in the Zonotchrica genus, but there is always the remote possibility that one could stumble across a Savannah x Song, or a Song x Lincoln's or something along the general line. I must say that although this bird showed no field marks pertaining to Lincoln's, the latter of the two hybrids is far more likely, both species being in the genus Melospiza while the SAVS is in the genus Passerculus. Maybe the sparrow that would look most like this bird would be a Savannah x Vesper Sparrow. But that this bird is a hybrid seems unlikely.

There is one more option I haven't considered: a 1/2 hybrid. David Sibley says that “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows will breed with the more common subspecies when they come in contact. Though James D. Rising (a SAVS expert) points out that their breeding ranges don't overlap.
A subspecies hybrid seems to me more likely to be seen in the wild then a full hybrid. Maybe this is what we saw.

"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow
Photo by the NJ birder.

But without more information we probably wont be able to positively ID it. DNA testing would have been nice. I should have remembered to take a feather sample to run through my tree house genetic research tree house laboratory - next time I won't forget! They actually did test the DNA of a rare Rufous Hummingbird in Illinois, for identification purposes. Ref. Winging It Vol. 24, No. 1, February 2012, pg. 1).

Hopefully this post will restart the discussion on its identity that ended months ago. I love a good on-line bicker.

Group of Sparrows
From left to right White-throated (upper left), Savannah (regular), "Ipswich" Savannah and the strange sparrow.
Photo by the NJ birder

Tell me what you think of this bird in the comments section of this post, I look forward to reading your replies!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Feb/26th-27th Excitements

Today we had to collect our father from his school job at the Providence Country Day School, where he is a Latin teacher. Passing the baseball field a white browed face showed itself to me, the sight sent tremors of excitement through my body. Arriving in the school parking lot, I was extra quick to leap from the car and slowly sneak across the field (camera in hand) to where I had seen this wonder, surely to the amusement of the nearby lacrosse players. Finally I reached a point close enough to raise my camera with any hope of getting a reasonable shot. "Snap" went the shutter, and in a second my photo materialized on the camera screen. There in the center of the image, surrounded on all sides by Canada Geese was a Greater White-fronted Goose. There seemed to be a little tension between the two species, and I captured photos of each species chasing the other. A hundred photos like the first quickly followed, but all too soon I had to return to the rest of my waiting family.

The Greater White-fronted Goose.

My prized goose.

A rare long necked duck, aka. a goose, with its more common relatives.

Have you ever seen a goose sprint - look at the orange feet.

Earlier in the day at RISD Beach I had been happy to find three Killdeer to lighten a quite birdless walk. Killdeer are rare this early in the year!

One of the three Killdeers at RISD Beach

A Ring-billed Gull

On the 26th we went for a walk at Borderland State Park. For the first half of the walk we literally didn't see a thing, then activity struck. Scanning the first pond we came to, I found nine Common Goldeneyes, three American Black-Ducks, two Canada Geese and one Mute Swan, in that order. Then a large black form was seen landing in a tree in the woods, having flown up from the ground. The Turkey Vulture posed for about minute before taking off to circle low above the trees, hoping in vain that our dog was not at that moment devouring whatever it was that the vulture had previously been gulping down. Did you know that vultures have been known to eat until flight is practically impossible with the pounds they had gained from their meal.

A Turkey Vulture

Later that day a pair of Killdeer were the lucky focus of our attention. Seen feeding in the baseball field of Hockomock Area YMCA. Baseball fields seem to be really good for birding - maybe I should take up the bat.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Feb/25/2012 Pardon Gray Preserve, Tiverton, RI

Reports have recently been leaking out on a flock of Eastern Meadowlarks sharing the fields of Pardon Gray Preserve with a flock of starlings. When I said that "reports have recently been leaking out on a flock of Eastern Meadowlarks" I was referring to the RI bird alert and did not mean that the reports were literally leaking on the meadowlarks which would be quite unpleasant for the poor birds.

Today being a Saturday with a blank calendar, we (thankfully) had no excuse not to go for a long car drive to some long hike. The wind today was a force to be reckoned with which ruled out beach birding leaving us with Pardon Gray Preserve and Weetamo Woods. These are two connecting wooded sanctuaries which form a large green square on any map of Tiverton, RI. We had recently visited Weetamo and been very pleased with what we had found. The woods there are a mix of Holly and hardwood which form a quite impressive forest stage for the migrants which soon will pour into this beautiful woodland.

Weetamo Woods is actually one of the most successful wooded birding Rhode Island locations drawing many a birder with exciting prospects of seeing Acadian Flycatchers in their only Rhode Island stronghold. Yet these birds where not be found here now and the meadowlarks were just too great an opportunity to pass up. I have never seen a meadowlark before. It is one of my biggest birding gripes and here was an chance to set that straight.

Fourty-five minutes after deciding to go to Pardon Gray I was watching wide eyed as a yellow bellied bird with a distinctive black necklace and light brown mottled back flew by me. Even more amazing then seeing this life bird was that it had taken less then a minute after stepping out of the car to find this bird. Ahhh sweet satisfaction, the heavy wait of having never seen an Eastern Meadowlark eased from my chest and floated away to torment some other unfortunate birder.

These meadowlarks were surprisingly easy to find though photographing them was a whole other matter. My auto focus didn't work because it decided that the grass was more worthy of it's attention then these handsome 9" birds. Failed by my auto focus I was forced to rely on the manual focus. Trying to focus on a bird flying away from you is quite impossible and my task was quite useless. I did however succeed in making the meadowlarks fly which was not part of my intention.

There were at least 15 meadowlarks in the field most feeding in small flocks of four, although at the end of our hike the meadowlarks had been joined by the previously reported mass of starlings who seemed to find the soggy field as appealing as any suet feeder.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

The field filled with meadowlarks and starlings

One of Pardon Gray's coolest features is the old family cemetery in the middle of the field.
You can't see the gravestones in this picture for they're behind that handsome stone wall which takes up most of this picture.

Literally nothing stirred in the woods except for a few wet dogs and their walking companions and of course us. Not even the call of a chickadee came to our ears although now that I think of it I did, to my surprise, for I'm far more used to seeing them in a more open habitat, see three Northern Flickers fly up from the ground deep in the woods, their white rumps vigorously blazing their identity.

I was also surprised when I found the source of the large numbers of Herring Gulls flying over the woodlands. A dump, a dump! It wasn't shown on the trail map. I was thrilled I finally had my chance to go birding in a dump. I could see hundreds of gulls circling over those inviting piles of trash. My dreams of frolicking through the trash and gulls was not to be fulfilled and I was quickly pulled away by my impatient parents. For God's sake I didn't even see a Ring-billed Gull let alone an Iceland Gull in the time I was allowed to scan the cloud of wheeling forms before I was pulled (wailing pitifully) away!

We all were quite delighted to come across a large rock face rising above the treetops which is something which RI has a great lack of. Rock faces, that is, not treetops! From the top, from over a distant rise a lone Turkey Vulture drifted.

Good job to anyone who correctly ID'd the Black-bellied Plover in the last photo quiz.
Here is your next quiz.
This was taken on Cape Cod this February. Good Luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

New camera and some AMAZING birding at Hampshire College

I want to start with an apology for having not posted for such a long time and now that I have said that let me dive into the first of todays to topics.

As some of you may know (especially the people that helped me save up the money) I have been counting quarters for a little over half an arduous year, saving for a DSLR camera. My brother was also saving and, I must admit was ahead of me moneywise. He has just created a photography blog. Click the link if you dare!

I finally had enough money with the recent arrival of the long awaited family tax return. Just a few weeks after my old Sony point-and-shoot had finally, after years of bumps and bruises, given out. I am now strutting, with my chest puffed out proudly, in full optical regalia with a Canon Rebel T3 swinging from my shoulder. The quality of the images taken by this new camera is more than I could have dreamed for.

A few of my favorite shots are shown below:

I'm actually pretty proud of myself for only taking about 200 photos of this Sanderling on Conimicut Point in Warwick.

This Turkey Vulture delighted us with his daredevil swoops which breezed him mere inches over the treetops of Chase Farm in Lincoln.

This one of the many Ring-billed Gulls at chilling at Conimicut Point.

A Black-capped Chickadee scolds me for standing so close to the bird feeders in our grandparent's backyard.

And this is Chase Farms very own resident white Red-tailed Hawk. I am unsure if this white coloring is natural or derives from some government experiment gone terribly wrong. Probably NOT the latter now that I think of it.

I admit that the last photo isn't that good but it's not every day that you see a pure white hawk!

Now we come to todays second topic which is equally exciting. Seeing that you've probably already read the title of this post I need not tell you where I was birding on the sunny afternoon of February 18th. Just in case you didn't read the title, we were birding Hampshire College. Hampshire College is located in Amherst, Massachusetts where it is surrounded by small dome shaped mountains and the usual prized attraction of our family's attention Atkins Farm, a small bakery and exclusive food market. Yet today Atkins pastries didn't even excite me as I was so worked up, the reason of this so called "working up" I will relate to you now. In early November of last year a Dickcissel was found sharing the twigs with House Sparrows in the bushes surrounding the Yiddish Book Center which is located across the street from Atkins Farm and on the outskirts of the college campus. Amherst Massachusetts is clearly not an Ohio meadow where it can typically be found residing. This small House Sparrow-like species amazingly is still lingering here and delighting the local birder population. After MONTHS of begging I finally convinced my parents to take us across the street from Atkins (which we visit fairly regularly I might add: they obviously aren't always totally obliging to my countless birding demands).

When I hippity-hopped out of the car I was fairly twitching with excitement. Thought ran though my head: what if it didn't show?, what if it showed but not well enough for us to confirm that it wasn't just a House Sparrow?, what get the idea. We gave the area a quick but fairly thorough search and came up with a few House Sparrows and a flock of Dark-eyed Junco. Sorrowfully plodding back to the car with tears rolling down my face in a never ending stream resembling Niagra Falls in their intensity, I was surprised to come face to face with a young teenaged birder. He kindly guided us to where he had last seen the Dickcissel. It was instantaneous; one second there was nothing there, the next second the flock of Dark-eyed Juncos flew up from the ground chittering their snappy little calls and with them the larger yellow chested form of the Dickcissel appeared. I was delighted for this was life bird number 262.

The young birder who had helped us find the Dickcissel kindly pointed us in the right direction to the roosting site of a Long-eared Owl which is extremely valued information in the birding world. Better yet this roost was literally on the Hampshire campus. What could be better? Not finding this bird was just not a considerable option!

At first we had trouble finding the scent but we soon located it (I'm sorry but I am not supposed to tell you where exactly this roost was located so as not to drive the owl from its home). Soon after we discovered the trail we were silently and carefully scanning the thick stand of pines in which the owl roosted. Not a mottled feather was seen though I knew quite well that this medium sized owl was watching our every move with it's keen yellow eyes bearing a shocking resemblance to the cartoon character Coach McGuirk after days with no sleep.

Disappointed we started back towards the car, heads drooped in sorrow once again. I was interested however to find a small spattering of whitewash (owl droppings) this must have come from the vent of the previously mentioned Long-eared Owl. I scanned the trees above this white splotch but saw no hunched form. Raising the camera I took two shots of the whitewash in quick succession with my new Canon.

I haven't yet figured out how to turn the shutter on mute and currently it creates the most annoying noise, one that every person who has ever heard camera knows well. It is a noise which sounds quite similar to the scoldings of a chickadee, at least this is what a pair of nearby chickadees thought. We followed these two chickadees who started calling excitedly and moving quickly towards the stand of pines which we had just vacated. We followed them hopeful and praying that the owl was in these little birds sites. Entering the stand of pines I was still unable to see anything other than twigs and of course the chickadees who seemed to be scolding nothing. Then Ben's hoarse whispered exclamation came from my right and at the same moment the sought after owl took flight from where he had carefully tucked himself away and shot smoothly into the soon to be dark woodlands of Hampshire College.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Bird Watchers Digest Young Birders Contest

The birds and balmy weather have favored me recently. On the 4th of February we saw the continuing presence of Tundra Swans at Tiogue Lake in Warwick. At RISD Beach in Barrington in the last few days we had a male Northern Pintail hanging out with the very large American Black-Duck/Mallard flock and a handsome Gray Catbird in the small wooded lot behind the marsh. They were all year birds.

This winter seems to have been going through violent changes in the weather. One day there's six inches of snow layering the street, the next we're wearing shorts and t-shirts!

Anyway, the main reason I am writing this post is to get down on my slightly scraped and quite scarred knees and beg my readers to follow this link ( and recommend me to win the pair of Leica binoculars that are being donated to one lucky young birder (ages 12-18) by Bird Watchers Digest, one of my favorite magazines. All you need to do is:

1. follow the link,
2. click "nominate a young birder"
3. write your name and email address where asked and
4. write my name (John Shamgochian), my age (13), what type of binoculars I have (Vortex Furies 8X32 which I was thrilled to win for my entry in the 2009 young birder of the year contest) and why I need to win this pair of Leica binoculars. Other than the overwhelming fact that Leica offers of the most expensive and sharpest optics in the world please say that the reason that I need them is because my binoculars are currently monoculars which means that my focus knob focuses the two sides separately so while my left eye (the eye that I favor) is getting a nice look at a Lesser Scaup my right eye is focused on a branch 15 feet closer. I had this problem repaired once but a few days after having them fixed the same problem came back. They will also ask you for some more information about me. You could just mention that I won third place overall in the 2010 Young Birder of the Year contest sponsored by the ABA (the American Birding Association) and that I am currently one of the five student blog editors of the ABA's young birders blog The Eyrie. Oh, and you might give them a link to this blog. I would be so very grateful if you could do this for me as it is very hard looking through half focused binoculars! Thank you!