To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #7. As I mentioned in the quiz, the photo was taken in Colorado in October. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying this bird.
I learned a big lesson with this bird… perhaps my experience will save you from making the same mistake.
I was on a field trip with our local Audubon chapter, one of about ten birders out beating the bushes and traipsing through the grass at a local hotspot. Our trip leader, John, was an extremely proficient birder—in fact he has almost 6,000 birds on his life list! Birding with him is a real treat, as I always learn something new, and often score a lifer I would have otherwise missed. He can roll down the windows, slowly cruise along the road, and list off the birds in the nearby fields purely by ear. (I don’t reliably recognize the song of a robin.)
In this case, we had our binos and scopes focused on a pair of sparrows who were gleaning seeds from the tall weeds. At least, that’s what I thought we were looking at. I had my camera attached to a long lens and tripod, and was squinting through it, clicking away.
I had already confidently ID’s the top bird as a Song Sparrow, and had snapped off some photos I was quite pleased about. Swinging my lens to the lower bird, I clearly heard John say, “It’s a Lincoln’s Sparrow.” Okay, I thought. Lincoln’s Sparrow.
At this point, I should point out that I’m just beginning to learn my sparrows. I can name the easy local species—White-crowned, Song, Chipping, American Tree—but I don’t have a lot of experience with our scarcer birds. If John said Lincoln’s, I assumed he was right. After all, he’s a much better birder than I am. Besides, I was focused on my photography, and I figured I could use the photos to ID the birds later.
The next day, I added the trip report to our chapter website. The post included some of the better pictures from the group, including this one which I labeled “Lincoln’s Sparrow.” Then I didn’t think about any of it for the next nine months.
Until I got an email. Another expert birder had looked at the trip report and quickly realized there was a mistake. The photo labeled “Lincoln’s Sparrow” was not a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Oops.
I’ll get to what the bird really is in a moment. First, the lesson. John had indeed identified a Lincoln’s Sparrow. It was right in front of us. It was not the bird I was photographing. Since I was focused on my sparrow, I didn’t see his sparrow, or even realize there was another bird involved. I confess. I was lazy. I heard a name and didn’t bother to look it up to confirm the ID (or to become better acquainted with the species). From now on, I will not take someone else’s pronouncement for granted. They may be wrong. Or, as in this case, they may be right—and I could still get it wrong!
Now, let’s see what this bird really is.
I’ve already said it was a sparrow. A triangular, seed-cracking beak, “little brown job” overall look, and striped head are a good indication that we’re dealing with an Emberizid.
Sparrows can be tricky. It helps me to break them down into big “little brown birds” vs. those a bit smaller. What about tail feathers? Some sparrows have white feathers on the sides of the tail that flash when it flies. If the bird hangs around long enough, I check to see if the breast is totally striped, has a striped necklace, and/or center spot, or is clear of markings. I also look at the facial markings. I try to take head shape into account; some sparrows have rounded heads while others (such as Grasshopper or LeConte’s Sparrows) have little neck and a flattened head. Finally, I check my tentative ID against the birds I can expect to see in that location and habitat… but remember, the birds don’t read that section in the field guide.
In this case, the bird is on the smaller end of average, although that’s hard to tell from a photograph. The dark taupe feathers on top its head are standing up in a sort of ridge. The face is gray instead of white, with a muted gold triangle on its cheek. I note an eye ring, and a black stripe running from the back of the eye to the back of the head. Legs and feet are gray-pink, the beak is a dirty yellow, and the breast is gray with faint streaking at the top. What little we can see of the wing is bright reddish-brown.
Now I thumb through all the pages of sparrows…. Song sparrows are a bit bigger with that distinctive center spot on the breast. A Savannah Sparrow is quite a bit paler, and has a yellow stripe over its eye, not to mention its arched “necklace” across its breast. A Lincoln’s Sparrow is similar, and even has an eye ring, but it has more distinctive striping on its breast. But on the same page in my Sibley’s Western guide is a Swamp Sparrow.
My bird doesn’t look like an adult Swamp Sparrow, but it looks a whole lot like the “first winter” illustration! But wait—Swamp Sparrows are found in the east, and we’re in Colorado. Is it possible?
Well, we’re at a location with some marshy fields and ponds, so we had the right habitat, and we’re out on the south-eastern plains. Plus, October is still migration season. According to the range maps, Swamp Sparrows do cross the Kansas border into Colorado. We’re only about 100 miles “too far” to the west. I guess the bird didn’t know that, because it is indeed a Swamp Sparrow. John confirmed it. And now that I’ve checked my field guide, I believe him!