Thursday, 12 October 2017

Digging Deep: Clay-coloured Sparrow

It has been a long time since I've touched this blog.  I've had plenty of fodder, but a busy field work schedule really zapped my motivation.  My field season wrapped up last Friday and I have been trying to make up for lost birding time.

This is a very interesting time of year for birding.  There are a lot of stragglers trickling through, but you really have to sift through roving chicklet flocks, frenetic blackbird flocks, and hide-and-seek sparrow flocks popping in and out of shrubs and weedy patches.  At the same time, you can't neglect estuaries, agricultural fields, and nearshore waters.  With days shortening, I continuously feel like there just aren't enough hours in a day.

There are several strategies to birding.  You can sit on a jutting point of land with a scope and scan offshore for hours and try to find such tantalizing birds as puffins, Brown Pelicans, boobies, jaegers, shearwaters, Yellow-billed Loons, Clark's Grebe, rare alcids, and eiders.  I often don't have the patience for this style of birding because the reward might be a distant view of a jaeger that you can't quite nail the identification due to distance.  I am very impressed that we have a few birders in Victoria that do the odd seawatch because the resulting list of birds seen usually beats the average day of land birding.  Another method of birding at this time of year is to just do some very coarse searches of many locations.  In other words, you bounce from site to site just doing cursory scans of key habitat features.  There is nothing wrong with this method and I am guilty of this style of birding a lot of the time.  When birding in this way, it helps to know what kind of rarities might be passing through.  That way, when you spot a flock of the usual suspects, you can efficiently scan through in hopes of finding the outlier.  An example of this would be a whirling flock of blackbirds that settles on a field.  When I see a nice blackbird flock that appears to be a mix of Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and maybe the odd Brown-headed Cowbird, I get excited for the possibility of Yellow-headed or Rusty Blackbirds, and at the same time I don't discount the potential for a higher magnitude rarity like a Common Grackle or... BC's first Tricolored Blackbird.  It helps to know these common associations where birds of a feather flock together.  Finally, the last style I will mention is the very slow-paced, methodical, on-the-ground search.  This is the digging deep style of birding that I am trying to adopt a little more this year.  The more time your feet are on the ground and not on a gas pedal, the better your chances are of connecting with something unusual.  We've had some rarities over the past few years that really show the importance of being in an area for an extended period.  The Redwing epitomizes the difficulty of connecting with a single rarity.  Even when this bird was known to be in the South Valley Dr area, it proved elusive to many birders over several visits.  In hindsight, I am shocked this bird was ever found.  If you're really digging deep, it helps to know the vocalizations of the suite of local species.  Sometimes all a rare bird will offer up is a call note, so you need to know it's not one of the usual suspects in order to work for a visual on it.  Swamp Sparrow is a prime example of an uncommon species that almost always gives itself away by its call.  They are often extremely hard to get a look at and you need to stay put and wait for it to show itself.  All of these birding strategies have merit and I think a good balance of all three of these is probably the most rewarding.  I suppose backyard birding is another method and the only option for some folks... and some of the most staggering rarities are attracted to a seed feeder, birdbath, or suet.  Whatever method you employ, remember it's just a hobby and go out and enjoy yourself.  Don't get bent out of shape if you're just seeing local species.  This is actually some of the most important data to collect, so consider keeping track of numbers and submitting them to a citizen science project like eBird.

Okay... enough birding philosophy.  Digging deep.  I had an opportunity to get out on Monday (October 9), but I had to run some errands first.  One of my errands was picking up a few groceries, so I decided to do a combination birding-grocery run to Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd.  After heading to Panama Flats a few weeks ago to search for the Bobolinks, I was shocked at the number of sparrows lurking in the weed-laden flats.  I thought Tod Creek Flats (behind Red Barn Market) also deserved some coverage, but I didn't have time to search at that time.  As I entered the flats on Monday, I was immediately struck by the number of sparrows darting from the ground up into the willow and alders.  The edge of the flats was lined with chamomile and other weedy species, so there was an abundance of food for the sparrows.  I walked the edge of the flats and good numbers of White-crowned, Golden-crowned, Savannah, Song, Lincoln's, and Fox Sparrows were present.  As I walked along, I pushed up a small, paler sparrow and my rarity senses began to tingle a little.  The bird had dropped out in view among the chamomile, so I slowly advanced and watched as the bird flew up into a willow.  I raised my bins and was pleased to see it was along the lines of what I was hoping: a Spizella sparrow.  We don't expect any species of Spizella in October, as the majority of Chipping Sparrows are typically gone by the end of August and smaller numbers continue to migrate through in September.  Clay-coloured Sparrow is rare on Vancouver Island, but we usually get one or two records every year in the Victoria checklist area.  Brewer's Sparrow is very rare here and most records in the area have occurred in the spring.  Field Sparrow is accidental and we only have two records in British Columbia, one of which was a bird found at Esquimalt Lagoon last November.

Pretty classic fall Spizella appearance - 50 shades of brown.
I studied up on fall Spizella sparrows for last winter's Clay-coloured Sparrows in the Martindale Valley, so I was felt mentally equipped to identify the bird in front of me as a Clay-coloured Sparrow.  The general impression of a fall Spizella is a small sparrow with plain, tan underparts, a pinkish bill, a brownish back with darker streaks, and a relatively long tail.  After that, a combination of subtler features on the head and nape set the species apart.  The bird in the willows had unmarked lores, bold white malars, a prominent, solid grey collar, and two brown crown stripes (albeit a little indistinct).  These features all pointed to Clay-coloured Sparrow.  Because Chipping is the most expected species on Vancouver Island, the loral area is a good area to check once you know you're looking at a Spizella in the fall.  Chipping Sparrows have a dark line leading from the eye to the base of the bill that creates a bit of a dark-line-through-the-eye look when combined with the dark postocular stripe.  They also have more noticeable white eye arcs, which is also easy to see if you're focused on the loral area.  Brewer's Sparrow looks like a very dingy, muted version of Clay-coloured Sparrow, with lots of fine streaking on the crown, less contrasted malars, and an indistinct grey collar with fine streaking across the middle.  More advanced articles that articulate the subtle features and address variation found within each species can be found here and here.

Note the contrasted white malar, lack of a dark line across the loral area, and prominent grey collar
This was only the fourth Clay-coloured Sparrow I have seen in the Victoria checklist area, with the first being in July 2014 and the second and third came in short order as the aforementioned records in the Martindale Valley last winter.  This was my first self-found Clay-coloured Sparrow locally, which brings my Victoria self-found total to 262!

Well, that concludes my first blog posting in ages.  I feel like it was all over the board, but perhaps that's a good thing.  Now, get out there and dig deep, do a seawatch, dart all over town and check snags and fence lines, or have a cup of joe and watch your feeder.  There are some really good birds out there to be found and I am antsy to see something like a Rustic Bunting, Tropical Kingbird, or Brown Booby!

1 comment:

  1. Good post Jeremy congrats on number 262 of self found birds that very impressive. When I took the young birders to see the bobolinks we were in awe of the amount of sparrows in there and Liron said there probably was a CCSP in there! Kudos to you for going through them all. I've been scouring the sparrow flocks here as well and checking every perch for a tropical Kingbird and scanning every shorebird for a Dotterel.I too feel the days are too short never enough time to bird. Glad to see you back posting. Cheers