Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sparrows at Merced National Wildlife Refuge (plus some ID tips)

Sparrows can be an intimidating group for beginning birders.  They're little, they're fast, they're flighty... and they're all brown!  How can one even begin to tell them all apart?

The Great Central Valley supports an impressive array of little brown sparrows, but there is hope for the birder!  Pick up a good field guide, and start narrowing your options down by season and by habitat.  For example, determine which species are likely to be in the Central Valley in the fall.  You'll be left with a shorter list of potential species after a process of elimination.

Another good tip is to learn the most common species backwards and forwards.  I suggest getting to know the English Sparrow (Passer domesticus) first - although they're not sparrows in the true sense, but rather a type of Old World sparrow introduced from Europe in the 1800's.  (Some ornithologists classify them as weaver finches, some argue otherwise.)  Turns out they like it here; they are everywhere, the ubiquitous little brown birds of cities, suburbia, and fast food parking lots.  Once you are acquainted with English Sparrows (also called House Sparrows), you will be better equipped to distinguish between the imposters and our true native sparrows. 
English Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Because they're so common (read: "boring"), I had never photographed an English Sparrow until today; I popped outside and found a male hiding out in a bush just outside the door.  I told you, they're basically everywhere.

The first native sparrow you ought to learn is the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), distinct with its prominent black-and-white striped head, and common enough to frequent bird feeders during the winter months.  (This one at Merced NWR proved difficult to photograph!)
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
The White-crowned was the first native sparrow I learned to identify, watching them at birdfeeders during the winter.  In the summer, they can be found in the Sierra Nevada and northern parts of the state; they remain along the Central Coast year-round.
White-crowned Sparrow feeding on weed seeds
The second native sparrow you might consider familiarizing yourself with is the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), a year-round resident of Central Valley grasslands.  It can be found nearly everywhere else in California as well, except for the High Sierra and the deserts.  A good field mark to look for in the Song Sparrow is a dark central chest spot, set at what sometimes appears to be the convergence of streaks on its breast.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
As you might guess, the Song Sparrow sings a lovely song.  Visit Cornell University's All About Birds to listen to a Song Sparrow sing.

So there's your assignment: make the acquaintance of our invasive imposter sparrow, then learn to recognize two of our most familiar and beautiful native sparrows, and you'll be well on your way to identifying more of the little brown birds you see in the field!

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