Image: Dave Rintoul, 25 October 2008 [larger view].
Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.
Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
Take a good look at this bird: have you ever seen anything more beautiful? “Sparrows” are dismissed by too many birders as difficult and dull, when in fact they are neither.
Well, there are a couple of moderate identification problems — certain of the sharp-tailed sparrows, or juvenile Aimophila — but otherwise, given a little bit of experience and a little bit of patience (each leads to the other, you know), most sparrows, even fleetingly glimpsed, are readily identifiable, and all sparrows, well seen, are terrifically beautiful.
The very best introduction to sparrow identification (and to so many other interesting groups) is Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding. The title of that handy little volume has put off too many birders, but as the author explains, this is not a book for “advanced” birders, but a book for birders who want to advance their birding — for all of us, in other words. With clear and simple illustrations, and clear and simple words, Advanced Birding sets forth a “generic approach” to sparrow identification that allows even new birders to quickly reduce the possibilities from an overwhelming 40 or more to just a handful of species.
The bird in the mystery photo is medium-sized (that’s not a twig it’s perched on), long-tailed, solid-bodied, big-eyed, and medium-billed. This is a Melospiza, what I like to call a “shade sparrow,” a member of a genus that prefers wet thickets, cattail edges, and brushpiles.
Once we’ve got that far, a view like this makes the identification easy. With a perched Melospiza, the easiest thing to look at is the malar, that narrow strip of feathers extending back from the base of the bill along the top of the neck. On Song Sparrow, the malar is white; on Swamp Sparrow, it is gray; and on Lincoln’s Sparrow, it is tinged a beautiful yellowish, as on our quiz bird.
Is this a Lincoln’s Sparrow? The crown is rusty, finely streaked black, with a broad but well-defined gray median stripe; the huge supercilium is gray, and the narrow eyering is white. From this angle we can’t accurately judge the thickness of the bill, but it doesn’t seem to be especially swollen. The yellow of the malar continues into a breastband, which is marked with fine streaks; those streaks run down the flank, never getting any thicker. The wing coverts are rusty, the inner greater coverts marked with blobby black teardrops. We can just barely see that the uppertail coverts are finely streaked.
Next time you see a sparrow, stop and watch it. You’ll find it first of all dazzlingly beautiful — and if you pay attention to enough of them, you’ll find it satisfyingly identifiable.
Review all mystery birds to date.