Saturday, December 5, 2009

Bulletin #97 – Attwater PC NWR - Sparrows and others

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas
December 5, 2009

Bulletin #97 – Attwater PC NWR - Sparrows and others

Hello friends,
There are several families of birds which are very confusing and challenging to birders, especially beginners. These would include warblers, gulls and sparrows. I am comfortable now with identifying warblers in the spring, but the other 2 groups still give me problems. But that is probably because I haven't spent enough time just looking for them and identifying them myself.
For many birders, sparrows are just LBJs (little brown jobs) and they all look alike. However taking the photos really helps, as it allows me to ID a bird at home even if I couldn't in the field. Part of the problem is the field guides. Peterson Eastern Birds has all the sparrows looking pretty much alike - LBJs. Sibley seems to be the best in showing the actual colorations, and National Geographic is also good. But as you can see from these photos, many of the sparrows have distinctive plumages and can be IDed with some practice.

On the upper Texas coast, we have 1 resident sparrow species, the Seaside Sparrow, a large grayish sparrow with a yellow spot in front of the eye. it lives in salt marshes only. I highlighted it in Bulletin #96.

However in winter, we get an influx of sparrow species. 3 of them I have not photographed. All are members of the Ammodramus genus. These sparrows tend to be skulkers and hard to see. These three species are on my to do list for this winter, so I started over Thanksgiving weekend looking for them. Fortunately, Texbirds is an online resource where birders report their sightings and I was able to find locations for all 3 of them.

On Thanksgiving morning I went to Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR west of Houston, where 2 of the 3 had been seen. It is a great place for sparrows.

To see the sparrows, you have to go early in the morning (before 10am) as they become inactive at that time and hide in the tall grass.I immediately found my first target bird on the entrance road. This was the Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii). This is actually a beautiful bird with mostly orange face and breast with a white belly and buffy orange flanks with dark streaks. The early morning light, as photographers know, has a reddish cast and the bird just glowed in the sunlight. Notice the flat head on the bird.

Later in the day, I found another Le Conte's Sparrow sitting on a fence post and the light was behind the bird, so I used the flash. The colors aren't nearly as dramatic.

Another related sparrow is the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) I already had photos from Florida of this bird, but this was my first time to see them in Texas and ID them myself, without a guide.

This bird has rusty color above the eye and below the eye with the rest of the face gray. This makes the white eye-ring very prominent. The bill is large and he has a flat head. The breast and flanks are rusty too, but this bird has no streaks on the underside at all. Notice the back has some rusty red feathers as well.

The first photo is an adult and the second has less dramatic colors and is probably a 1st winter bird.

The next bird is the Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This bird has a gray face and head with several brown stripes. But the ID mark is the caramel colored breast band with streaks.

The next one is an LBJ, the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sanwichensis). It is probably the most common winter sparrow here and is IDed by the brown face with a white or sometimes yellow streak above the eye. The white breast with brown streaks is also part of the ID package.

Next is a very distinctive large (7") sparrow, the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). This bird is an easy ID with the black and white striped head and plain gray throat and underparts. Note that juveniles may have beige rather than white stripes on the head.

The last sparrow from this trip is the Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina). This sparrow has a gray face and underparts. There is rufous cap on the head, pink bill and most importantly, a black line through the eye.

When looking for sparrows, you have to be careful of LBJs that aren't sparrows. Here is a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) that was in the same grassy field with the sparrows.

The last bird I photographed on this trip was a Northern Caracara (Caracara cheriway) This large (23") black and white raptor was sitting on one of those small steel fence posts. His ID is easy with huge bill, red/orange face and a bushy crest.

When flying, they are also easy to ID as they have white on 'all 4 corners'. They have white head, tail and wing tips.

Quiz answer - I asked if there were any other birds with scientific names that had the same genus and species name. I received 1 answer, the Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia). The one I was thinking about was the Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus).However, I found 2 others; Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus).

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2009 David McDonald

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