Speaking of Nature: Third time’s a charm for identifying this rare one

  • Here is the Savannah sparrow that I saw recently. Note the lighter coloration, the more delicate streaking, the shorter tail and the yellow over the eye. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • Here is an adult song sparrow seen in our area during the winter of 2014. Note the dark color overall, the long tail and the heavy streaking on the flanks. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • Although somewhat out of place, this particular bird was quite spunky and was not afraid to stand its ground to a much larger cardinal. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Over the past two winters I’ve seen some odd birds at my feeders. In 2015 there were two species that made surprise appearances. There was a swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) that proved to be something of a head-scratcher simply because I’d never seen one up close before. It also didn’t help that the bird was still on the breeding grounds weeks after it should have migrated.

The real dazzler was a gray catbird (Dumtella carolinensis) that decided to stay for the winter. It may help to remember that the winter of 2015 was somewhat irregular, as though it couldn’t quite make up its mind if it was going to be cold or not. This may have marked the very beginning of the the beginning of that El Niño period we experienced in 2016, but the fact remains that a gray catbird sitting in the snow and eating birdseed alongside cardinals and juncos is a very odd sight indeed.

By the time 2016 rolled around there was no doubt that El Niño had established itself. The weather was really strange and winter appeared to have forgotten to happen. There were long stretches of temperatures in the 40s and 50s and it seemed to rain more often than it snowed. I suppose it should have come as no surprise that a male rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) should make an appearance. A bird with a decidedly tropical feel to it, the grosbeak should have been long gone and down in Mexico at that time of year.

So, with great interest I kept my eyes riveted to my feeding stations for the beginning of this winter. What bird would show itself this time? I got my answer during the Christmas break. I spent many mornings sipping coffee and counting birds and there was one morning when I caught a glimpse of a bird that made me stop and take notice. What was that? What did I just see?

As with many such instances, the bird flashed into view for a moment and then disappeared again. I looked at it for a second or two and then it was gone, leaving me with nothing to go on. My only identification after such a quick blink was that it kind of, sort of might be a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia). A flag had been raised, but I was forced to put the bird in the “whatever” pile. I simply hadn’t seen enough of it.

The following day I caught another glimpse of the bird and this time I saw a little more detail for a little longer. Definitely not one of the normal winter sparrows, this bird was all “wrong.” It had markings that made it look about 49 percent like a song sparrow, leaving a whopping 51 percent that screamed, “No, I’m something else!” Then the bird was gone again, not to return for the rest of the day.

Finally, on the third day, the bird showed up again and I was ready for it. My camera was set up, the bird hopped up into view, and I started clacking away. The conditions were terrible because of the low light and most of the photos were of very poor quality. There was enough detail to use for identification purposes, but not enough to publish. Still, I finally had a few precious moments frozen in time so I could study them. A new identification started to formulate in my mind, but the details were still a bit fuzzy. I needed a second opinion.

So I reached out to a lifelong friend that I will identify here as “The Connection.” It’s important to frame identification questions carefully so there is no hint of bias on my part. I sent along a few photos with comments on the field marks that I thought I was seeing, but I didn’t divulge what I thought the bird might be. I wanted to be very scientific about things and I also didn’t want to make a fool of myself if it could be avoided.

While I waited for The Connection to get back to me I sat down with my beautiful wife Susan and went through the identification protocols with her. We looked at illustrations in three different field guides and two different online sources that specialize in bird identification. At the end of a delightful half hour we had a 99 percent identification. When The Connection came through with an answer to my query the final 1 percent was in place. The bird was a Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis).

I would have to go back into my records to find the last time I even mentioned this species. Let me see here. If I open this file, type in sav and hit enter, ah here it is. I wrote an article on the Savannah sparrow in the summer of 2013. This makes perfect sense because the Savanna sparrow is a decidedly summertime bird that lives in open areas like hayfields and goes unnoticed very easily. The bird’s song is so quiet and delicate that you feel as though you’re imagining it rather than actually hearing it.

My reliable Mass Audubon checklist of the birds of Massachusetts lists the Savannah sparrow as uncommon in the summer, abundant for about three weeks at the end of September and into the first half of October, and finally dwindling down to “occasional” during the winter and early spring. It then goes on to suggest that suggest that the occasionality (I just coined a term and claim all future royalties for its use) of this bird is generally seen in Plymouth County, Cape Cod and the Islands.

My confusion is best explained by reviewing the species description in my Peterson Field Guide to the Birds. In this sacred text can be found the following: “This streaked open-country sparrow suggests a song sparrow, but usually has a yellowish eyebrow stripe, whitish crown stripe, short notched tail and pinker legs. It may lack the yellowish over the eye.” Thanks a lot Peterson.

It took a lot of time, a lot of patience and a lot of coffee, but eventually I was able to get the photos I needed. One in particular shows a hint of buttery yellow over the eye in an area known as the “supraloral” region. This, combined with the finer streaking on the feathers of the breast and flanks, the not-quite-dark-enough spot on the breast, the shorter tail and very pink legs all point to Savannah sparrow. If you have a competing identification please let me here from you.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.