The Sparrows of Utopia


Lark Sparrow

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© 2006-2020 - All Rights Reserved


*Note: Late 2019 this page has been updated with many new photos.

Actually it should be "sparrows, relatives, and unrelated things that sorta resemble sparrows." Generally LBJ's - little brown jobs - as some birders call them. They are mostly ground feeding seed-eaters (except summer when bugs around), most preferring open areas next to understory and brush to hide in. Many are beautiful variations and patterns of browns, black, grays, rufous and buff. Perhaps somewhat confusing at first, but a myriad of beautiful intricate patterns, especially on their heads, become evident with close inspection. Like warblers, each occupies a slightly different niche and makes a living in a different way. Which comes with subtle variations in structure, habits, and behavior. Some are short and spiky tailed, others longer and notched, some are slim, others chunky, some are big-billed others smaller, some are almost as big-headed as a California Bird Record Committee member, others smaller and more proportionate. Always pay attention to and learn habits, shape, and structure alongside plumage. Some are fairly tame, and others are so furtive in behavior as to routinely beat mere humans in games of hide and seek. So yeah, they can be all kinds of fun.

Only a handful of species breed locally. Winter is when our local sparrow diversity is at peak. Then many types that nest far to the north come south to avoid snow cover which makes foraging for seeds on the ground challenging. At that time, several types may be found in a flock together. One might find 10 different types in a day of winter birding here, as I have a few times without any special effort towards that. Most love white millet and putting out 'mixed seed' will often bring in and keep a flock around for winter. But please not if you have outdoor cats. Best around and near brush and understory so they have something to dive into for safety. Stick or brush piles work great too.

There are about 20 species of sparrows (strict sense) known locally (upper Sabinal River drainage), of about 33 or so species currently recognized in the U.S. It could be easily argued there are over 40 species in America with all the very distinct populations now considered subspecies. Many were prior considered full species and were lumped. There are six species of regularly breeding sparrows locally. Breeders in decreasing order of abundance are: Lark, Field, Chipping, Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, and Olive. Field and Chipping are close. Black-throated may be more widespread but in general are not easily accessible, so it is hard to tell. Additionally two species may irregularly breed, pending rainfall. Grasshopper has nested once this past year (2019), and Cassin's summered once, but no known nesting (probably has after wettest years) confirmed yet. Cassin's nest just south off the plateau in the brush country in fair numbers most moist years.

Following are some photos of them to show the various types found in the area. We have recently (2019) removed a bunch of the poor pix that were here, and replaced them with better illustrative shots. One thing to keep in mind is variation. Some field guides show one average individual, or a couple ends of the scale if lucky. Whence one must keep in mind probably everything in between can happen. Some types have a duller grayer version (morph), and a richer rusty version (morph). Others have multiple subspecies which vary similarly and might occur. Chipping, Field, Savannah and Cassin's can all vary from grayish to rusty in overall appearance. Some will be dull, others bright. The key ID 'marks that matter'™ however, will always remain the same.

First we will start with the breeding species.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow is a common and widespread breeder locally, and, a real beauty.
It is also a great songster. In flight note white rounded corners to tail.



Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow is a fairly widespread common breeder locally.
Note thin white eye-ring, fairly plain face, pink bill, long tail.



Chipping Sparrows

Chipping Sparrow is a widespread low-density breeder here.
This is an adult coming into breeding plumage.
Note Rufous crown, black line through and white line over eye.

Chipping Sparrows

Compare base color of back and wing feather edges on this bird and
the one above. Taken same day on birds adjacent to each other.

Chipping Sparrow

A juvenile Chipping Sparrow is very streaked below, some of which will last into fall.



Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow, note rufous crown, black whisker, narrow white eyering.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a rocky slope denizen, almost always where a terrestrial gradient.



Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow is a very low density resident, often around cactus and Agarita.
Up on top of the bluffs at Lost Maples is one of the better chances for them here.
A stunningly gorgeous dainty bird. Our Edwards Plateau type is different from the
southwestern desert types being smaller, darker, and with more white at corners of tail.
And they sound different. But other than that they are the same bird.



Cassin's Sparrow

Cassin's Sparrow is fairly plain appearing, but for that fancy flight song.
Along Lower (or Old) Sabinal Rd. south of Hwy 90 is good for them.


Cassin's Sparrow

Cassin's Sparrow has a fancy breeding flight song, called skylarking. Look
where there are scattered short mesquites amongst lots of taller grasses.


Cassin's Sparrow

Cassin's Sparrow, rufous morph can be very rusty above, more
are plainer gray and brown. For breeding, they are rain chasers.



Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow is a pretty spiffy sparrow. It is named for its clicking buzzy song.

Grasshopper Sparrow

This Grasshopper is one of the breeders in Bandera Co. north of town in 2019. Note
the yellowish in lores and at bend of wing, the big pale median crown stripe,
and the big flattish head and big bill.



Olive Sparrow

Olive Sparrow is an outlier, an unstreaked subtropical sparrow, with green in wing and tail.
It is a south Texas specialty at at the northern limit of its range here along the Sabinal R.
where dense brushy understory. Several pairs breeding at Lost Maples SNA the last few years.


Olive Sparrow

This is how you usually see them, in bad light amongst a tangle of brush.
Note brown and gray stripes on crown, line through eye, olive on wing.

That is it for the breeders.

~ ~ ~

The following species occur as migrants in spring and fall, or as winterers.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow will confuse you until you learn it. So you might as well
get started. Usually in open fields and pastures. Very streaky above and
below, often with yellow in lores (between eye and bill).

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow is often along fencelines and in pastures. It can be
rather dull, or somewhat bright with rusty feather edges. Most show
some yellow in lores.



Clay-colored Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow in spring (breeding) plumage

Clay-colored Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow in fall, two adults, one imm. (center facing right)





Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow - note white sides to tail and fine eye-ring. You can almost
see a hint of the rufous chip on the shoulder. Flocks may chorus in winter
like Zonitrichs and Lark Sparrow.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow - Fairly nondescript pale sandy and streaky overall.



White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow is one you may see in your yard in winter if you have
some brush for cover. Immatures have dark brown and buff crown stripes the
first winter. A scarcer similar relative the White-throated Sparrow has a big
snow white throat. Most of our White-crowns are pink billed eastern types (leucophrys),
but a few orange billed western types (gambellii and-or 'oriantha') occur.



Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow - a common migrant here, small numbers winter.
Often mistaken for the rarer here Song Sparrow. May or may not show a
central breast spot, with buffy wash across thin neat streaks on breast.
Note buffy malar coming off lower mandible contrasts with white throat,
and gray eyebrow. Throat is finely streaked (Song Sparrow usually unmarked).



Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow always shows a big central breast spot, and thick coarse streaks on
underparts, both often messy. No strong well-defined buffy wash across breast.
Throat and malar are usually same color (or very close), dirty white , whereas
on Lincoln's these are different colors. Throat unstreaked. Note also big
thick heavy black whiskers on Song, usually much less prominent on Lincoln's.



Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow is a big beauty. This is the winter adult Sylvia Hilbig
photographed at their place a couple miles N.W. of town in Bandera Co. There
are hardly any Bandera Co. records. This was Dec. 27, 2015. It is far less than
annual here, but one winter we had a few around. Usually with White-crowneds.

So winter is really the peak of sparrow season here, as for most of the country. They give us something to look at whilst all the insect eaters are gone and we wait for warblers to return. It was once said sparrows eat many billions of dollars of weed seeds annually. And that is in the wild naturally, not dummies like me buying seed to feed them. But which is also a multi-million dollar industry. In summer they eat lots of bugs, 'worms' (caterpillars), grasshoppers, etc. So they do provide very valuable environmental services. One Mountain Laurel under which I have tossed seed for 6 years has nearly doubled in size, no doubt due to the valuable (to the laurel) deposits the sparrows leave.

Note to self: need to add pix of Baird's, Brewer's, White-throated, Fox and Swamp. Have them on (unscanned) slides from elsewhere of course.

~ ~ ~

The following are mostly not sparrows in the strict sense. Some are closely releated, others distantly, others not at all. But they might be confused with sparrows, so here we show some other LBJ's - little brown jobs - for illustrative purposes.

First here are a couple Junco pics. Some folks call them snowbirds. Juncos I think technically are sparrows, but are quite different in appearance. Since I was 5 I never saw at a Junco and thought 'sparrow'. Mostly they are dark pine-forest denizens of the north or elevation. Most here are gray, some with brown, none here are streaked (juveniles are where they nest), all have pink bills and a couple bright white outer tail feathers. They used to be far more common in winter than they are presently, likely related to milder winters with less snow cover further north.

They are all considered one species now, the Dark-eyed Junco, with several subspecies and morphs. They used to be about 5-6 different species, as in any older field guides. Most are easy to ID as to which type they are. Our default Junco here is the Slate-colored. That is what most of what you see here will be. But, Pink-sided and Oregon have occurred, as well as an amazing Gray-headed x Pink-sided hybrid. The black-hooded cismontanus western type of Slate-colored have also occurred. They are fun for that regard. Which types occur how often? We have had winters with multiple Pink-sided and Oregon in a Slate-colored flock. And then go years without any Pink-sided or Oregon. Some years we barely get a Slate-colored now. If not a Slate-colored, try to get a pic if you don't know them so folks can figure out what type it was.

Slate-colored Junco

Slate-colored Junco is a now scarce winter visitor with pink bill and white outer tail
feathers. This is a female with brownish tones on back and sides. Males are all slaty
gray and beautiful. I will try to dig up a pic to add.



junco
These two (above and below) are a hybrid or intergrade Junco, between two
forms or subspecies. It is a cross between a Gray-headed and Pink-sided Junco.

junco

Another variation that occurs here is the Oregon Junco which has a black head,
and a brown back, not reddish backed as the hybrid above. Looking for pic.



House Sparrow

Many in town know the House Sparrow, which amazingly is not actually a true sparrow,
but an introduced old world weaver finch. Also often around barns. This is a breeding
plumaged male, females and young very dull. They are not native to America, and will
aggressively evict bluebirds from boxes as Starlings will. It is ok to disappear them.



House Finch

House Finch, this an immature male just getting red. Females and young are all streaky
brown on pale so superficially sparrowish. There is a page with pix of the red males.
I guess I need to find a female pic.



Cassin's Finch

Resembling a female House Finch, this is a Cassin's Finch,
female or imm. (Nov. 2007), which is very rare here. The female
Purple Finch is similar, but I haven't seen one in 10 years now.



Then an outlier in its own group is Dickcissel, which looks sorta like a sparrow in immature plumage. Adults have bright yellow on underparts so are obviously not sparrows. They are rain chasers and breed here in wet years, but may be absent when in drought.
Dickcissel

Dickcissel, a fall immature, looks sparrowish. Note yellow eyebrow and usually some
yellow on breast, large bill, rufous shoulder, fine thin diffuse streaks on breast, sides and flanks.



Indigo Bunting

These are female Indigo Bunting, which are sorta sparrowish.
Note the range of ground or base color from pale tan to richer brown.
Photo taken Nov. 6.



Towhees are not sparrows, but look and act like "giant" sparrows.

Canyon Towhee

Canyon (formerly Brown) Towhee, is our resident breeding towhee. It is rather plain
and unmarked. Not averse to hanging around habitation, but somewhat enigmatic locally.



Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee is a winter visitor (late Oct. to March-April) in thick brush.
Sorry about the bad pic. The sides are rufous, white spots on blackish to
brownish upperparts and wing, with white corners of tail. A rarer here
relative, the Eastern Towhee lacks the white spots above and on wing.



Not a sparrow, but might be with them in winter ...

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting. Big and chunky, huge bill, big white area along bend of wing.


Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting, female or immature, note the big white patch on the wing



Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak, female - note huge bill size on big chunky buffy bird, with buffy wingbars.



American Pipit

American (formerly Water) Pipit is streaked below when most common in winter.
Often in bare pastures, or short grass, often near water. Note the thin bill is not
a triangular sparrow-shaped seed-cracking bill. This in breeding plumage fairly unstreaked below.



Longspurs look like sparrows, but are very very rare here.

Smith's Longspur
Smith's Longspur in September



Another not a sparrow but brown streaked ... usually at feeders...

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin is a streaky goldfinch, note yellow in wings and tail, and pointy bill.



The End
Grasshopper Sparrow



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