Monday, December 30, 2013

An Ipswich Sparrow

On the way home from Christmas travels, my wife and I stopped at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for a morning of birding. While the main draw is the large number of wintering ducks and geese, we were intrigued by reports of several Snowy Owls on the beach. We checked with a ranger to see where the owls had been seen most recently and she told us that they had not been seen in two days. Since we saw a Snowy Owl over Thanksgiving weekend, we figured we wouldn't spend a long time hunting for these. But we did drive down to the end of the parking lot and have a look around. There were a large number of people out walking the beach and fishing so any owl would be a good distance away.
But sine the light was now behind us, we decided to scan Tom's Cove for any waterfowl or shorebirds that were too hard to see from the main road. There wasn't much in the water but as we approached we saw a pale sparrow working through some beach grass. It wasn't very cooperative in giving us good views but did stay in the same general area for several minutes. And a second one joined a few minutes later. We searched our field guides but couldn't quite nail the identification down. I took several photos in hopes that they would help. After returning to the car and consulting the books in more detail we returned for some more looks, with an eye on what was needed for identification. Since it was a bit of a puzzle for us I thought I would walk through it here.
An early look at the bird
The sparrow was pale and ran across the sand instead of flying. We quickly closed in on either the Ipswich subspecies of Savannah Sparrow or a Vesper Sparrow. Although we have seen Savannah Sparrows before, I don't remember seeing an Ispwich and the Vesper would be a life-bird. A Savannah should show a bit of yellow in front of the eyes and have a shortish tail. The Vesper would have a longer tail and a distinct white line along the bottom and back edge of the cheek patch. The tail was how to see most of the time but gave the appearance in the field of not being noticeably short. And there is a distinct line around the cheek patch. But a Vesper shouldn't have distinct lining on the head, especially the line above the eye, the supercilium. After much back and forth and looking at the photographs when we got home, we decided it was an Ispwich that just wasn't showing any yellow. A second bird that we saw when we returned has the slightest hint of yellow as seen in the bottom two photos.

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