Category Archives: Sparrows

Sorting Sparrows: “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow

Photo of "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow
"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow | Biddeford Pool, ME | 3 Oct 2016

Savannah Sparrows breed in grasslands throughout much of Canada and the northern US, and winter for the most part in coastal and southern US and Mexico. One distinctive subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, which breeds almost exclusively on Sable Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, is the "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow, or "Ipswich" Sparrow, for short.

Due to morphological differences like their larger size and sandy gray plumage, this subspecies was formerly thought to be a separate species, though current taxonomies now lump this form with the browner, slimmer mainland types of Savannah Sparrows (see photo below). Outside of the breeding season, "Ipswich" Sparrows can be seen in coastal habitats throughout the eastern seaboard, places where being the color of sand can be a distinct advantage.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Sorting Sparrows: Grasshopper Sparrow

Photo of Grasshopper Sparrow
Kennebunk Plains | 27 Jul 2016

Grasshopper Sparrows are fairly secretive, ground-nesting specialists of dry fields, barrens, and open grasslands. Like many sparrow species who nest in similar habitat (e.g., Field, Vesper, and Clay-colored), they're often easiest to observe when singing from an exposed perch. Their buzzy song is insect-like, and is perhaps influenced by their grasshopper-rich diet.

Field marks include a white central crown stripe, white eye-ring, and buffy chest, but these can be difficult to appreciate without a spotting scope. Becoming familiar with their head shape and overall profile (by observing singing birds) is perhaps more useful for those armed only with binoculars.

Photo of Grasshopper Sparrow
Kennebunk Plains | 27 Jul 2016

Though mostly encountered on their breeding grounds in late spring and summer, Grasshopper Sparrows occur as migrants in other habitats, sometimes late in the year. I photographed the following bird at a coastal location in early December. To learn more about Grasshopper Sparrows, visit All About Birds.

Photo of Grasshopper Sparrow
Cape Elizabeth, ME | 5 Dec 2015

Sorting Sparrows: Saltmarsh Sparrow

Photo of Saltmarsh Sparrow

Having covered Nelson's Sparrow earlier this month, today I'll cover the other former "Sharp-tailed Sparrow" known as the Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Saltmarsh Sparrows breed in coastal New England marshes as far north as southern Maine. Though similar to Nelson's Sparrow in appearance, Saltmarsh Sparrows have a yellow bill and distinct chest streaks (vs. the blue bill and blurred streaks of Nelson's). Observing these differences is not always easy, and as I warned in my previous post, hybrids of the two sparrows may show a blend of characteristics that make definitive identification impossible.

In my experience, Saltmarsh Sparrows sing more softly than Nelson's. The bird in the following sample recorded by Tayler Brooks at the Scarborough Marsh sounds louder than any I've heard in person:

Visit All About Birds to learn more about Saltmarsh Sparrows. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Sorting Sparrows: Nelson’s Sparrow

Photo of Nelson's Sparrow

During summer, in many coastal New England marshes, there reside secretive sparrows once thought to be of a single species known as the Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Genetic research led to the species being split into Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Since then, the "Sharp-tailed" portion of the names has been dropped, much to the dismay of those who adore tongue twisters. (I challenge you to say "Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow" 5 times fast!)

Nelson's Sparrows breed along the east coast from southern Maine into parts of Canada, as well as in some interior portions of the continent. Only in southern Maine does the species share breeding grounds with the more southerly, and strictly coastal, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and it is primarily in this overlap zone where the two species are known to hybridize.

Nelson's Sparrows (at least typical individuals who breed along the Atlantic) have a yellow-tinged chest with blurry streaks and a bluish bill (vs. Saltmarsh Sparrows who have more distinct streaks on a whiter chest and a yellow bill). That said, there is some overlap, and hybrids (especially in southern Maine) may show a blend of field marks that make species determination impossible.

Visit a Maine saltmarsh on a June or July day and listen for the Nelson's song, which has been described as sounding like a water droplet hitting a hot frying pan. Here's a sample of a bird from the Scarborough Marsh, recorded by Tayler Brooks:

If you're persistent, observant, or just plain lucky, you'll be able to spot the singer on a marsh perch as I was able to do to capture these photos. To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Sorting Sparrows: Clay-colored Sparrow

Photo of Clay-colored Sparrow

The vast majority of Clay-colored Sparrows spend their summers in shrubby grasslands in central Canada and the central northern United States. But every year, birders spot a small number of Clay-colored Sparrows in suitable habitat right here in New England. Visiting the Kennebunk Plains -- a managed grassland habitat kept open by periodic burning -- is perhaps your best chance to observe one summering in Maine.* Thanks to several local birders who shared their sightings via eBird, I was able to locate and photograph this bird last week.

Clay-colored Sparrows sing buzzy, insect-like songs that can be challenging to pick out, especially if the bird isn't close. Here's a sample:

While I did hear some buzzy phrases shortly after arriving at the previously reported spot, much of the time the bird gave only simple chip notes. At one point, the sparrow perched in a short Pin Cherry and preened, allowing me to note many of the field marks of this species: gray nape, pale lores, white (central) and brown (median) crown stripes, dark malar stripe, unmarked chest, and relatively long, notched tail. To learn more about Clay-colored Sparrows, visit All About Birds.

Photo of Clay-colored Sparrow

*I'm not sure if Clay-colored Sparrows have bred successfully at the Kennebunk Plains, but the site is known for a variety of grassland specialists who do, like Savannah, Field, Vesper, and Grasshopper Sparrows, Upland Sandpiper, Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink.