Monday, January 13, 2014

365 Photo Project: Identifying LBJs (Sparrows)

Recently I have spent a lot of time bird watching and photographing.  During my trips out I’ve discovered how much fun sparrows can be and how pretty they can be when they actually “sit up,” or perch in a place where they can be viewed and photographed. 

Over the years I have never really been overly interested in sparrows, other than that they are little, brown, and can be difficult to see.  Until a few years ago I really did not see many of the differences in the sparrows, which to me have seemed just brown and striped…and I know I am not the only one that thinks this way.  Recently, though, I have started to see the differences and slight color changes, markings on the bird, etc.  I have chosen three birds to highlight and show a few differences.  With two of them, just getting a photo can be a challenge at times.

Savannah Sparrow (photo by Cathy Spahn)

The first photo is of a Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis.  During the fall, winter and early spring they can be seen in the St. Louis area; however, they nest further north.  I took this photo in early October while looking for shorebirds.  I happened to be sitting in a bird blind when a group of about four Savannah Sparrows popped up.  I quickly took a few photos because sparrows are not well known for sitting up for any length of time.  Savannah Sparrow’s are a smaller sparrow with a short tail, distinct facial markings and Malar stripe (a strip just below and behind the lower mandible) like you find on many falcon species.

LeConte's Sparrow (photo by Cathy Spahn)

The second photo is a LeConte’s Sparrow, Ammodramus leconteii.  This bird can also be found in St. Louis during fall, winter and early spring.  They also nest to the north.  I found this bird about a week later than the Savannah with another area birder.  I was in the blind as during the previous week, and this time we went for a walk into the grasses.  As we walked out this bird popped up and then we saw about three other birds in the field.  LeConte’s Sparrows have a central crown stripe, orange forehead, buffy eyebrow, grayish ear patch and thinner bill than other sparrows.  This is a nice find, since LeConte’s sparrows are not a sparrow that sits up for long.  Most of the looks I have had over the years are the bird popping up, flying a few feet, then disappearing.

The last photo is a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Ammondramus nelsoni.  They winter to the south and nest to the Northwest of St. Louis, so they are generally only seen during migration.  This photo was pure luck.  The day I saw the Savannah Sparrows I just happened to catch a different sparrow out of the corner of my eye.  I put my camera up right away and took a shot.  I figured if I got the bird in the camera I could ID it later.  I tried to take another photo and the bird dropped out of sight.  I tried looking for the bird, but never saw it again that trip. 

Nelson's Sparrow (photo by Cathy Spahn)

Later I worked on trying to ID it, but with no real luck. Then I sent it to my Dad for extra help.  Lo and behold it was a Nelson’s Sparrow--similar looking to the LeConte's, but with more orange and a bigger grey spot behind the eye and on the back of the neck.  I was very excited, since this was a Life bird for me, meaning the first time I ever saw it. 

The following week when I saw the LeConte’s I saw three more Nelson’s and I could really see the difference between the two sparrows. 

The one thing sparrows have taught me is there is beauty in the simplest things, even LBJs (Little Brown Jobs).

All photos were taken at Riverlands Bird Sanctuary, in West Alton, Missouri.

Submitted by Cathy Spahn, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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