April 5, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Mystery of the skulking sparrow

(That sounds like the title of a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew book!) There's nothing like a good debate on identifying a vagrant bird of dubious ancestry to get the spring season going. I was pleased that my report of the mystery sparrow on my back patio elicited so many responses from fellow bird enthusiasts: eight people weighed in altogether. Here are the votes so far:

I counted multiple votes for those who suggested more than one possibility or who changed their minds after reading others' observations. Jay Keller was quite certain that is a Swamp sparrow, swaying others' impressions. I should have put more emphasis on the small apparent size: about that of a Chipping sparrow, I would say. That plus the skulking, shy behavior and the plumage made me think it was a Henslow's sparrow, but that was before I realized how rare it is in this area. (Didn't anybody click on the blank white space to see what I thought?) Also, I could not discern any olive coloring in the head, which is a field mark for the Henslow's sparrow, and the auricular patterns are not quite right, either; see the photo of one my brother John took. It just didn't look big enough to be a Swamp or White-throated sparrow; and I've never heard of Song or Lincoln sparrows with ruddy coloring. Of course, this was the exact same spot where the famous Western tanager appeared three years ago, so perhaps it is some kind of cosmic convergence zone for rare birds.

CLICK ON THIS PHOTO to see a (mediocre) 45-second video clip that may help to resolve the question. (Mouse rollover for comparison to previous photo.) I took the video yesterday, at the same time as I took the still photos, in which the brightness and contrast are adjusted to minimize the glare distortion. (Doing so for digital video would take an hour or more.) To me, the buffy whiskers and small size make the early favorite -- Lincoln's sparrow, originally picked by YuLee, Crista, Charles Z., and Allen -- more likely. Whatever it was, it stayed in our backyard through this afternoon, and I'll post a notice early in the morning if I still see it. If anyone comes to visit, note that there is a new condo building across the street from Lee High School training field.