Since, the beginning of the year I have been drawing a bird a day. This project is to bring awareness to birds and to have fun learning about all the bird species around us.
I have been posting them to instagram but, feel it would be fun to do blog posts for each collection I end up finishing. Or a daily blog post since I write quite a bit about each bird along the way. Let’s catch up, this will be a super long post, compiling each sparrow and what I wrote about them.
I LOVE Sparrows. There are so many and their subtle differences is a puzzle I am very into solving. These are your standard, LBBs, Little Brown Birds. At a fast glance they all look the same. You have to study and look delicately for the differing patterns. It is even the same in their songs. A Song Sparrow vs a Savannah Sparrow sound almost the same except for a small tonal change between them.
I have spent many hours, looking at my photos, books, the web, other people’s photos and listening to audio clips amongst these sources to learn these subtle tell-tale signs.
Here is first collection is Sparrows. These collections will culminate into a limited edition poster print. This one is now available in my shop.
This Chipping Sparrow can be seen across all of the continental United States and into Canada and Mexico. It lives full time in southern areas and breeds in northern regions. Soon I should be seeing Chipping Sparrows here in California. There has been one reported at a nearby park. They will come to feeders, especially looking for black oil sunflower seeds.
The Chipping Sparrow I have drawn is in its non-breeding colors. Their breeding colors are a gray face and black bill with a distinctive rufous cap.
The Fox Sparrow. My mom had been wanting me to see one of these. There was a particular birding outing we took with the goal to get me a Fox Sparrow.
Let me clarify getting a bird for a birder. When you bird you create a “Life List”, this list is species of birds you have seen across your whole life. Getting a “Life Bird” means seeing a species you have never seen before. There are around 914 species of birds in North America with over 10,000 across the world with new studies suggesting there could actually be over 18,000 due to better exploration and study. I have a life list that is 228 species long. I have a lot of birding to do!
The Fox Sparrow is one of the birds that has much variation with 4 distinct subspecies, Thick-Billed seen mostly in California, Red mostly across the east coast but crosses the continent to Alaska, Sooty seen along the west coast, and a Slate-Colored inner western states.
I have seen the Sooty subspecies. Once ever so briefly as it sang and a second time as it foraged for a morning meal. I got to watch it scatter ground debris find a worm and eat it. I love the chest patterns on Fox Sparrows, it looks like paint brush marks. That is the defining mark of these birds. No other Sparrows’ chest marks look quite like that. The reddish coloring seen across the species is similar to a Fox’s coloring hence naming this the Fox Sparrow.
I think I have seen a juvenile of this species at my feeder but, my yard doesn’t yet have enough shrubs to really draw them in. They need good cover to feel comfortable to visit your yard. Another year of growth, then maybe!
There are 29 Sparrows in my Western Sibley they all look pretty similar on a first pass view. So, to take away some of this overwhelming feeling, you start with what could you be seeing. This dramatically brings the number of options down. The ones with cool names, Lark, Vesper, Lincoln, Fox, and even Song Sparrows will most likely not be at your feeder. You will see those on walks in nature. Also time of year matters, I have 3 kinds of sparrows at my feeders right now and that will change around April down to maybe 1.
So, you are probably working with 1-3 species of sparrow at your feeder. If you are on a nature walk I will need to make a longer post about that. For the yard Sparrows I see, I have House, White Crowned and Golden-Crowned Sparrows. They all look fairly similar, with mostly gray bodies and faces, similar checking patterns across the wings and white wing bars. The biggest give aways are their beaks and the tops of their heads. Also for House Sparrows, the males have a dark face and throat which gives him away but, the females look pretty similar to female or immature White and Golden Crowned. Golden-Crowned Sparrows have gray or bicolored beaks with also yellow. The breeding adults give you an easy spot with a thick black eyebrow then gold and white feathers for their crown. The immatures are tougher, they have a gray brown face all the way up except for a yellow fore-crown that could be hard to spot unless they are looking right at you. I find I can tell if it’s a Golden-Crowned Sparrow by how wise it looks. To me these birds have a sophisticated air, their face seems to be a bit bigger and their eye more wise looking. Also they are overall just a bit darker.
Harris’s Sparrow, this is the first rare bird I went out to find on my own. I think my need to go out and see this bird without having my Mom around to take me was the sign, I had become a birder. My son came with me and as luck would have it we ran into the Sequoia Audubon Society President and she helped to point out where this bird was hiding. It was also wonderful to meet such a friendly person and feel welcome to join other local birders. I have now joined them for two birding walks and am looking forward to making any other walk that I can. I am up extra early today for the walk in Pacifica, all part of the Great Backyard Bird Count for this weekend.
This Harris’s Sparrow is in its first winter. If it was a full adult it would have a black feathers fully around its face, over its crown, and down its throat. Although, I think this first winter coloring is quite striking.
These birds don’t live in California almost at all. We can get a rare sighting where one has joined a flock of Golden Crowned Sparrows but, they really live in the middle of the continent. Although, this flock joining happens widely across the rest of the states. So, if you see a flock of Golden Crowned Sparrows look closely, you never know if a Harris’s Sparrow will have joined them.
This White-Throated Sparrow, I saw in North Carolina when I was visiting my Mom in the first week of September. If you know Sparrows, you know White Throated Sparrows don’t usually make their way to their winter locations especially this far south this early. They arrive closer to November.
When I saw this bird land at her feeder I knew something was different. It didn’t look the same as the other Sparrows I had been seeing so, I made sure I took a photo. With Rare birds unless you can really describe the field marks it is best to have a photo for your observation to be confirmed and accepted in ebird. This was a sighting we needed a photo for. Honestly, when I described what I had seen to my Mom she hadn’t believed me, I was so glad I had taken my photos. It surprised and excited her to see me started to take note like a real birder.
I have yet to see a White Throated Sparrow in California. They do winter here as well. They seem to join groups of other winter Sparrows more than come in a group.
Here is a winter bird for my yard, the White-crowned Sparrow. They are native birds along the coast here in Northern California. Around October they show up in my yard and stay until April. Then I won’t see them at my feeders again until October.
They are super cute, traveling in a flock of about 5-10 birds. They feed off the ground and their hopping and running about makes them almost look like mice.
They have beautiful songs, usually my first alert to their presence is their singing.
Vesper Sparrow, the last of the streaked sparrows that I have seen. Vesper Sparrows while common across the continental United States are not common in the area of California I live. However, there is a small group of them at a recently opened Open Space in the hills along the Bay Area Peninsula.
I was getting rare bird alerts, yes I get a daily email telling me where rare birds are near me, for a few weeks before I could make the trek out to see it. Going to look for a rare bird is odd. You might see it because it is a bird that follows regular patterns and perches in open territory as part of it’s behavior. This Sparrow was just out on the trail right as you begin the hike of this open space. I could see this very white looking bird at the edge of the grass. I got pretty close took some photos then it noticed me. It took off to its resting place and we didn’t see it again. We easily could have not gotten a view of this bird.
When I go out to look for rare birds that is really when I feel like I am playing Pokemon Go in real life.
The complete white eye ring is the big sign that you are seeing a Vesper Sparrow.
Song Sparrow, I am learning as I go through all of my pictures it is still hard for me to tell the difference between a Song, Lincoln, and Savannah Sparrow. I also realize, the Song Sparrow is busy and therefore, very hard to get a photo of. I found a couple and they are such blurry reference photos. Also, this bird is so wide spread and so common to see, I think we didn’t put as much effort into getting photos of it. In my excitement of learning the sparrows, I think my Mom’s response to “what sparrow is that!”, “oh another song”.
If you are birding especially during the summer and most of the rest of the year and you see a streaked Sparrow, it is most likely a Song Sparrow.
The males will sing often and they are kind enough to perch just at eye level on exposed branches, usually, so you can see and hear them clearly.
Look for rusty streaked birds to identify a Song Sparrow. However, if on the West Coast they will be darker. This is another bird with a lot of variation between regions. There are still markers that give you the clear id. Rounded tail, white throat patch, and central concentration of streaking making a spot on the front of their chest.
The Savannah Sparrow another beautiful streaked Sparrow that often has yellow lores (the feathers above and beside the eye near the beak) that give you a fast id. Although, it isn’t on every Savannah Sparrow. When you see a Song, Savannah, or Lincoln Sparrow you have to hope you get a long enough view to tell them apart. Their differences are so subtle and you have to be ready to spot those differences in an instant. Another id mark that sets the Savannah Sparrow apart is the tail, it has a notched tail where the Song Sparrow has a rounded tail.
The Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow also have crazy similar songs. They both sound like bugs with high lilting notes then a buzz but, the Song continues with more lilting tones. I haven’t managed to train my ear to hear the difference.
In winter time you are usually going to see Savannah Sparrows in groups in open habitats. They will almost never come to your feeder. This Sparrow is also smaller and has a shorter tail.
These birds were originally named by Alexander Wilson, not because of the birds loving grassy spaces but, because he first saw this bird in Savannah, Georgia.
The Lincoln’s Sparrow. Trying to id this on a foggy morning was a special chore, it was also my first time deciding I wanted to know the difference between all of these birds. I had heard there was a rare Vesper Sparrow at a local hotspot the week before and I was desperate to see it. Putting down the idea that I would see a rare bird I starting looking at obvious-sure-to-be-around species which, still gave me a great list of neat birds to see.
Lincoln’s, Savannah, Song and Fox Sparrows were all likely options for Sparrows with streaking down their chests. Lincoln’s stand out from the other limited number of Sparrows with chest streaking (this is how you figure out the id, you narrow your list of possible birds by using categories within categories.) by having very fine streaking that breaks up into separate marks as they descend. When in brighter lighting you can also see the chest feathers amongst the streaking are buffy in color. Those two elements should give you the id. If you want to go deeper, grey eyebrown, gray beak, pink legs, and a buffy eye-ring are also present.
It has been awesome to get to know sparrows. I look forward to seeing more and learning each of them as well. I always take a closer look at each sparrow. There is always the chance there could be a rarity in the mix.