Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sparrow Identification by Shape: Song, Clay-colored, and Grasshopper Sparrow

The subject of identification by shape can be a daunting topic, so it is beneficial to start off with what you are already familiar with.  Since we are discussing sparrow identification, a great place to start is with the Song Sparrow.  Through the rest of this discussion on shape I will compare other species to Song until we get to sparrows that are too dissimilar in future posts.

Overview of shape differences between Melospiza, Ammodramus, and Spizella Sparrows.

Tail Length

The tail length of sparrows is extremely important to the overall look of a bird and can help to quickly identify some species in flight.  When speaking of tail length, it is in comparison to the rest of the body.  So this is a helpful feature even when the birds are not in direct comparison with other birds.  The most common, widespread sparrow, the Song Sparrow, can quickly be identified by tail length in most situations.  The Song Sparrow (Melospiza) has a long, rounded tail that is evident while perched and especially in flight.  The Ammodramus sparrows have a very short tail that is also noticeable in flight.  The Spizzela sparrows have a long, narrow tail that has a notched tip.  

Body Weight Distribution

The distribution of body weight can give different species of sparrows completely different looks.  There are three main descriptions I use when describing different body weight distributions:  evenly-distributed, chest-heavy, and belly-heavy.  Each of the three genera discussed in this post has a different distribution (see the diagram).

Bill Shape and Size

Bill shape and size can also impact the overall appearance of a bird.  For the three genera discussed the bill shapes are a bit different.  The Song Sparrow (Melospiza) has a deep bill with both mandibles being slightly rounded.  This results in a bill that does not look finely-tipped.  The Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus) also has a large bill, especially in relation to body size. The shape of the bill is similar to that of the Song Sparrow, although somewhat slimmer and narrower based.  The Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella)  has a more finely-tipped bill than the other two species.  The straight-edged upper mandible creates this sharper billed appearance.

Head Shape and Size

The head shape of these three genera is fairly distinct.  The Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus)  has a flat head that in many cases can appear to just be an extension of the head.  The Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizzela)  has an evenly rounded head although in some cases can look peaked at the back.  The Song Sparrow (Melospiza) has an evenly sloping forehead that peaks in the back.  In the case of these three genera the head size doesn't noticeably stick out, although Song Sparrows look quite large headed in some cases.  

Wing Length

The wing length of sparrows is quite variable, but most are fairly short winged compared to other families of birds.  Both Ammodramus and Melospiza have short wings with little to no primary projection.  However, the Spizella sparrows have longer wings with short primary projection (long compared to most sparrows though).  This feature is worth noting as it changes the overall shape of a bird.

Note:  All of these features can change to a certain degree depending on the action of the bird so watching them for more than a couple seconds is important.

To see the previous Sparrow Identification by Shape post go to:


Monday, October 29, 2012 Bird Quiz Results and a New Contest!

We have come to the end of our 4 weeks of bird quizzes. There were tons of answers submitted but there were only two people that got them all right. By random drawing, Nick Kiehl has been selected as the winner of this month's quiz series. Congratulations Nick!

With how popular this series was, we have decided to offer 4 more quizzes over the next four weeks for another t-shirt. All of the same rules apply. Good luck!

The first quiz can be found by following this link -

Please tell all of your friends about our fun and challenging quizzes!


Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Late White-eyed Vireo

While out birding at Eagle Creek Park this morning, a quick check of the marina for waterfowl turned up a couple unexpected species.  A Northern Harrier (uncommon for the park, migrating over) and a late White-eyed Vireo.  High numbers of waterfowl have been on the move throughout the Great Lakes region which has given all of us Eagle Creek birders some great birds to watch.  Each day in the last three has brought different species compositions and abundances.  

White-eyed Vireo-it had been a month since I had last seen this species at Eagle Creek Park.

Bonaparte's Gull-one of a small flock

Horned Grebe-yesterday there were a couple rafts of this species, today
only a few individuals

Female Purple Finch-there have been large flocks of these around the
Skating Pond.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Pine Siskins!

Finally!  After hearing siskins fly over the backyard for the past 2-3 weeks, they have started visiting the feeders this morning.  It is a nice addition to the White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows and the many Dark-eyed Juncos that have been visiting the yard the past couple weeks.

A group of 4 Pine Siskins on the "sock"
feeder . . . also a (still) very bright
American Goldfinch

One of the Pine Siskins on the bench
Also, be on the lookout for other "winter" finches . . . they have been moving south recently!

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Eagle Creek Park - Henslow's Sparrow

This morning, Eric and I headed over to Eagle Creek Park to do a little birding. We had hoped that more waterfowl had moved into the area but there were just the usual Mallards, shovelers, and teal. Overall we were having a pretty slow day until a Henslow's Sparrow suddenly popped into view near the skating pond! I was able to snap a couple of photos of it before if moved on. This species is quite unexpected in Indiana this late in the year!

Other highlights of the day were Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and American Pipit.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England

My immediate reaction to this book when I opened it was "Wow, I can't believe how much information Kenn and Kimberly were able to get into one book!" It is incredible that we are able to get an extremely high quality guide to all the nature of New England in such a small package

It seems that every time I am out birding, I get distracted by other aspects of nature. But I never carry all of my field guides with me, so I can't always figure out what everything is. The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England gives you everything you need all in one place. From maps of the night sky to information on clams, crabs, and seaweeds, this guide has it all.

Everything is laid out in a very intuitive and easy to follow way. The birds and many other categories are organized by family (as us birders are used to), but the Kaufmans made it much easier to find flowers in the book by organizing them by color.

There is also a very important chapter at the end of the book about conservation in New England. Many authors would have considered their guide complete without this, but Kenn and Kimberly went above and beyond to included this very important information.

I would highly recommend that anyone interested in nature that is either visiting or living in New England purchase the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England. If you are in other areas of the country, be sure keep an eye out for more nature guides from the Kaufmans in the future!

We received a copy of this book from the publisher to review on The links are to our Amazon Affiliate account.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Raymond Worth Park

Yesterday, I made my second visit to Raymond Worth Park.  On the first visit, I realized how much habitat in the park is perfect for sparrows.  And since we are in the middle of sparrow migration I figured I would stop by.  So, I met Rob out there for some sparrow watching and just as I was impressed on my first visit, I was impressed this time as well.  Although it is a tiny park, we quickly checked off nine species of sparrows and we even had an Orange-crowned Warbler!

One of the 35+ White-throated Sparrows; this one actually posed nicely for a pic!

A terrible shot of the Orange-crowned Warbler . . .
at least you can tell what it is.

Another White-throated Sparrow.  Look at that
beautiful back pattern!

One of my favorite sparrows, the White-crowned.  We had many of these as
After birding at Raymond Worth we went to Coxhall Gardens to look for Nelson's and Le Conte's Sparrow.  We didn't find either but we did have one Sora.  The birding was quickly stopped when Rob lost his balance and had to jump into the marsh so he wouldn't ruin all his equipment . . . if only I had been able to snap a photo of that!


Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: Hawks in Flight


Wow, the second edition of Hawks in Flight makes the first edition look like a fairly useless guide!  The entire layout has been changed which has made the new edition much more understandable, when it comes to hawk identification.

Some of the changes include:

  • Integration of photos and illustrations into each species account.
  • Color coded pages for each group of hawks
  • Addition of species that have a limited range such as Snail Kite and Aplomado Falcon
  • Addition of color photos that are helpful and easy to see
Some aspects that were taken out of the first edition that I wish they would have kept include:
  • The page of head-on profiles . . . That's it!

So, as you can see, I would highly suggest purchasing the second edition over the first edition.  But, what about those other great hawk identification books that I discussed here (includes the first edition).  

Each has it's advantages over the other.  Both of the Liguori books have more photos for each species but there aren't any illustrations as there is in Hawks in Flight.  The aspect of Hawks in Flight that makes it a breakthrough guide is the way that the illustrations, photos, and description of the species are integrated.  In Hawks at a Distance, there is a page for each species showing the birds in as many positions as possible (about 40 photos for each species) that makes this guide worth purchasing (even if for no other reason than this).

All three of these guides are essential to birders learning how to identify hawks in flight.  I would highly recommend any one or all three of these guides!


We received a copy of this book from the publisher to review on The links are to our Amazon Affiliate account.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

McCloud Nature Park

This morning I headed out with Rob to meet Eric Malbone at McCloud Nature Park.  Neither Rob nor I had ever visited this park but we quickly realized it has great potential.  It is a fairly large park at 232 acres and includes a variety of habitats such as grassland, mature forest, and second growth.  Big Walnut Creek also runs through the property which helps attract birds.

One of the many Fox Sparrows.

We ended the day with nine species of sparrows and five species of warblers.  The biggest highlight for me was listening to the Fox Sparrows singing.  The few Lincoln's Sparrows we saw were also highlights.  We also came across 35+ Pine Siskins mixed in with a large American Goldfinch flock; I had only been having this species as flyovers recently.

Lincoln's Sparrow that was obliging enough to feed out in the open.

Orange-crowned Warbler-we had a couple individuals on the day!

We ended the day with a decent total of Purple Finches . . . such as this male.

Big Walnut Creek


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Changing the Face of American Birding

This past weekend, my wife and I were in Minneapolis for the Changing the Face of American Birding Conference. It was held at the beautiful Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. When we arrived on Friday night, we headed to a pre-conference social where I got to reconnect with some old friends and meet several people that I had only communicated with online. We were welcomed to the conference by Dave Magpiong, the mastermind of this whole event!

After a short bird hike on Saturday morning, the conference got started. There were many awesome presentation but my favorites were the "Barriers to Birding" Panel and the Reaching "Non-traditional" Audiences Panel. You can watch all of the presentation on video by following this link This group is sure to make progress on one of the most critical issues in birding and I hope that everyone will consider joining in. The next conference will be in November of 2013 in the Rio Grande Valley!

On Sunday morning, a bunch of us that were at the conference meet up to do a little birding. We went to the Bass Ponds unit of the NWR and found lots of great birds including 3 Nelson's Sparrows that were lifers for several in the group!

Nelson's Sparrow out in the open!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hawk Migration: Accipiters

The weather forecast looked good for hawk migration this morning, so when I saw a migrating Sharp-shinned Hawk while filling up some feeders, I decided to spend the morning looking at the sky.  The conditions deteriorated throughout the day so most birds moved through before noon, especially the accipiters.  I ended the morning with about 20 raptors migrating over, about 6 each of Sharp-shinned, Cooper's, and Red-tailed Hawks.  Luckily, there were also some other birds migrating; I had three Pine Siskins (which still haven't come to the feeders), Horned Larks, and both Tree and Barn Swallow.  

One of the adult Cooper's Hawks that was in full soar.  As with all Cooper's Hawks that are soaring, this one
looks like a flying cross.

One of the Sharp-shinned Hawks in full soar.  As with all Sharp-shinned Hawks that are soaring, this one
looks like a flying "T".

The third Bald Eagle to be seen from the yard.  This one didn't stick
around for too long.
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Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Late Bay-breasted Warbler

This afternoon a large flock of birds moved through my backyard.  It was mostly comprised of Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, and Dark-eyed Juncos.  I was very surprised to put up my bins and see a Bay-breasted Warbler.  It had been 10 days since I had last seen one and figured next spring would be the next time I see one.  

The Bay-breasted Warbler from today.

The same Bay-breasted Warbler partially obscured.

A Red-winged Blackbird from a couple days ago.  They are gathering in
flocks here in Indiana now!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sparrow Identification by Shape

As with almost any bird, shape is an important aspect of sparrow identification.  While you don't have to completely rely on it for most sparrows, it will help you become quicker with their identifications.  This graphic is a basic guideline, but in some cases, sparrows in the same genus have markedly different shapes.  I will talk about some of these differences in later posts.

Sparrow Shapes-click on the image to see it larger.
Look closely at tail and wing length, bill shape, head shape and size, and overall bulkiness.  With a little
practice these sparrows will start to look much different.

Here is a list of what species are in what genus.  Pipilo and Rhynchophanes are not included in the graphic but they will be included in later posts.

Pipilo:  Green-tailed, Spotted, and Eastern Towhee
Aimophila:  Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Melozone:  Canyon, California, and Abert's Towhee
Peucaea:  Rufous-winged, Botteri's, Cassin's, and Bachman's Sparrow
Spizella:  American Tree, Clay-colored, Chipping, Brewer's, Field, and Black-chinned Sparrow
Pooecetes:  Vesper Sparrow
Chondestes:  Lark Sparrow
Amphispiza:  Five-striped, Black-throated, and Sage Sparrow
Calamospiza:  Lark Bunting
Passerculus:  Savannah Sparrow
Ammodramus:  Grasshopper, Baird's, Henslow's, Le Conte's, Nelson's, Saltmarsh, and Seaside Sparrow
Passerella:  Fox Sparrow
Melospiza:  Song, Lincoln's, Swamp
Zonotrichia:  White-throated, Harris's, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned Sparrow
Junco:  Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Junco

Calcarius:  Lapland, Chestnut-collared, and Smith's Longspur
Rhynchophanes:  McCown's Longspur
Plectrophenax:  Snow and McKay's Bunting

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding

This weekend Stephanie and I will be heading to Minneapolis to participate in the Focus on Diversity Conference at Minnesota Valley NWR. The conference will focus on how we can get more people of all backgrounds into birding. You might be wondering why this is so important and I think that the organizers of the event have the best answer to that question. They say that "Getting new audiences interested in birding will benefit those new birders, the birding community, the environment in general, and, of course, the birds themselves!"

Isn't that what it is all about? Growing the birding community and helping the birds we love, should be a top priority of all birders. These two things also go hand in hand. The bigger and stronger the birding community, the more we can do to help birds. Will you be attending the conference this weekend? If not, you can still watch and participate online! All of the events will be live streamed online and you can send your questions to the panelists via social media by tweeting to @fledglingbirders! The streaming video can be found here:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Raymond Worth Park, Coxhall Gardens

I had driven by Raymond Worth Park many times in the past few years and had never stopped to see what birds were around.  It looked like it had some nice sparrow habitat so I decided to head out there this morning in hopes of some unusual sparrows.  As always, it was great fun to bird a new place where you don't know exactly where to expect every species to show itself.  

It is a very small park, at just 18 acres and is dominated by shrubby habitat that looked great for a few species of breeding birds that I do not get too often in Hamilton County.  This will give me a great reason to head back out there in the spring or summer when I get a chance.  The sparrows didn't disappoint, as I ended with 7 species, the clear highlight being a Lincoln's Sparrow.  Other great birds included both of the kinglets, a flyover Pine Siskin, and a Winter Wren. 

A Blue Jay with wings tucked.

A Blue Jay with wings spread.

Lincoln's Sparrow-a bird that I don't see often enough in Hamilton County
I was hoping to find new areas to look for Nelson's and Le Conte's Sparrows and since Raymond Worth Park didn't have any great habitat for either I visited Coxhall Gardens.  I have visited Coxhall Gardens for about 5 years with hopes of finding Nelson's and Le Conte's Sparrows and today I finally got half way there.  One Nelson's Sparrow was cooperative enough to hop into view for a good two seconds before disappearing.  I spent a long time trying to get a photo but I just couldn't get any clear views after the brief encounter.  However, my searching wasn't entirely worthless, as I did have a Marsh Wren, two Wilson's Snipe, and a Sora. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler with something tasty!
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Monday, October 8, 2012

Bird Identification Basics: Topography

What is topography?  First you need to understand that feathers don't just grow in random patterns around a birds body but in, what we birders call, tracts.  The feathers in each tract are usually the same or very similar in shape but are different from the other tracts.  Each tract serves different purposes for the birds, hence the different shapes of feathers.  Now that we know the extreme basics of feather topography, how can we use this to our benefit when identifying a bird?

If you are watching a bird through binoculars you may not always notice these separate groupings of feathers but once you realize there are many different shapes of feathers the groups become more discernible.  This can help birders pick out patterns that may be missed otherwise.  Knowing the names of all of these tracts is extremely helpful as it helps the observer understand where exactly to look for what marks.

There are many great ways to learn the topography of a bird.  The best field guide for the job, The Sibley Guide to Birds (Audubon Society Nature Guides Ser.), includes the topography for many different families of birds including passerines, shorebirds, ducks, and gulls.  This is a great place to start learning these feather groupings but it will not take you all the way to where you want to go with feather topography.  It is a much harder feature to see in the field or in photos, so the next step is to start looking at photos and birds in the field a bit closer than you usually would, even a starling can help you in this situation!

Following are a few pictures to show the (more important to identification) topography on a couple of species!

Osprey Wing Topography

Grasshopper Full Body
Grasshopper Sparrow
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Friday, October 5, 2012

BSBO and Responsible Wind Power

I have written about Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) many times over the last several years. I love the Black Swamp region, I visit it every year to go birding in the spring, and am very involved in the Biggest Week in American Birding. The birding here is awesome and I for one want it to stay that way!

Chestnut-sided Warbler - One of the many beautiful birds that migrates through the Black Swamp region every year.

The area is currently under threat from the proposal of poorly placed windmills. I am all for green energy but not if it is done this irresponsibly. Please read the information that BSBO has put out on this issue here. If you have ever birded in the area, you know how special a spot it is. If not, I encourage you to make your first trip here very soon! We must protect it not only for our birding enjoyment but for the sake of the birds that use this critical stopover habitat every year! Please send in your information so that BSBO can include you as one of the people in support of their position on responsible wind energy.

Can you imagine letting Kirtland's Warbler be affected by windmills?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Le Conte's Sparrow Photos

After visiting the Lebanon Business Park on Monday and not having any luck with photographing Le Conte's  Sparrows, one of my goals over the next couple weeks was to get photos of one.  So, this morning Rob, Eric Malbone, Ryan Sanderson, and I headed out to see both Le Conte's and Nelson's Sparrows.  We were successful on both fronts with fairly good views of a Nelson's Sparrow quickly after we arrived.  Once we got to the smaller pond we found a cooperative Le Conte's that we were all able to get some photos of.

Le Conte's Sparrow-this fairly cooperative bird sat up, partially in the open and allowed us to get some photos.

The same Le Conte's once the sun had come out

This Osprey was cooperative and flew right by us

Best Field Guide for Sparrows

With sparrow migration kicking into full gear across much of the northern United States there is no better time to become familiar with the various species that could occur near you.  The following two guides will quickly improve your field identification and can also help you with identifying sparrows you have taken pictures of.

1.  A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of The Sparrows of the United States and Canada-This is a great guide if you prefer illustrations instead of photos.  This guide starts with accounts of each species which includes such information as Identification, Similar Species, Voice, Habits, Habitats, Measurements, History, and much more.  It's about as complete of a guide as you could ever ask for.  These accounts are followed by plates of each species that occurs in the United States and Canada


2. Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide - This book offers extensive information on each species. The amount of photos included is really amazing and will undoubtedly help you learn how to identify each species in varying plumages. Unlike the guide above, the photos of the species are located right along side the descriptions not on separate plates. I really like how detailed the range maps are and how photos of multiple subspecies are shown when appropriate such as with Fox and Savannah Sparrows.

-Rob and Eric

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Strange Chickadee at the Feeders

On Tuesday, my wife found a very strange chickadee at our feeders. I was at work and unfortunately never saw the bird, but she grabbed my camera and got some great shots!

This bird is what we call leucistic. It has normal plumage but is paler than it should be. You can learn more about pigment disorders on the Cornell website

Have you ever seen a strange bird like this at your feeders?


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sparrow Identification: Song, Savannah, Vesper

For sparrow identification there are many aspects that we have to consider.  There are five species of sparrows that include Savannah, Vesper, Fox, Song, and Lincoln's that look similar, at least superficially.  In this post I will use Song Sparrow as the baseline and compare species to it.  In the next post I will talk about Fox and Lincoln's Sparrows and compare them to the baseline of Song Sparrow as well.

One thing to consider about Savannah and Song Sparrows is that they are extremely variable from coast to coast.  A bird on the east coast has a much different plumage than a bird on the west coast, so I will point out features that don't change and will be good generalities in identification.  If I were to explain all of the plumage characteristics I don't think anyone would make it through this (including me).  But, I would suggest, you take a look at the version that is in your area so you have a good idea of the overall coloration etc.

Song vs. Savannah Sparrow

The great thing about Song Sparrows is their long, rounded tail making them easily identifiable if you pay attention to shape.  You may not think this will be that noticeable in the field but as soon as you start paying attention to it you will notice that it makes a huge difference in the overall appearance of the bird.  The bill shape of Savannah tends towards being thinner and more fine but is variable so is not always a great field mark.  However, the bill color is usually a good field mark, Savannah have a pinkish lower mandible with a grayer upper mandible.  Song have a dark upper mandible with a grayish lower mandible.  This is not too variable except that some juvenile Song Sparrows can have a pink-based bill but it is usually much darker overall.

Some plumage differences include the streaking on the chest and flanks, coloration of the lores, and the face coloration.  All Savannah Sparrows (with few exceptional individuals) will show much finer streaking on the chest.  Compare the photos below and it will be quite obvious that Song Sparrows have thicker streaking which gives an overall different impression.  For most subspecies of Savannah and Song the coloration of the lores can be helpful.  Savannah have yellow lores while Song have while lores.  Juvenile Song Sparrows can show yellowish lores but the rest of the bird doesn't match up to a Savannah.  Some Savannah can also show white lores but the subspecies of Savannah Sparrows that show this have limited ranges.  The overall face coloration can also be helpful in identification.  The Song usually shows a gray face while the Savannah shows a much browner face.

A Savannah Sparrow-notice the short tail, fine streaking, yellow lores, and pink lower mandible

Bruant chanteur / Song sparrow
A Song Sparrow-notice the long tail, thick streaking, grayish face, and gray lower mandible
Notice the long tail compared to the other two species.
To see the photographer's photostream go to
A Vesper Sparrow-notice the bold eyering, white "u" border to the auriculars, and fine streaking

Song vs. Vesper Sparrows

Luckily for us birders, the Vesper Sparrow is no where near as variable as the other two species discussed.  As with the last comparison, the long, rounded tail of the Song is very distinct from the short tail of the Vesper.  The Vesper Sparrow tends to be shaped more like a Song Sparrow in general though; it's a plumper bird just as the Song Sparrow tends to be.  Also, Vesper Sparrows have practically no primary extension (the extenion of the primaries past the tertials) while Song Sparrows have short primary projection but it is noticeable in the Song Sparrow.  

There are many plumage characteristics that separate Vesper from Song Sparrows.  One of the most noticeable is the white outer tail feather (R5, the 2nd outermost feather, has a white tip).  The white outertails are very noticeable in flight.  The bold, white eyering is also noticeable in most situations.  The overall face pattern is distinct; the white "u" that outlines the auriculars is unmatched by the Song Sparrow.  The streaking is finer (slightly bolder on average than Savannah) than Song Sparrow.  Vespers also have rufous lesser coverts (shoulder) but in most instances this isn't visible so in general is not a good field mark to look for.

The next sparrow id article will be coming soon!