Thursday, November 27, 2014

Clay-colored Sparrow - what to look for

One of the toughest spizella identification challenge familiar to many NY birders, is with separating fall and winter Chipping from Clay-colored Sparrows. Sometimes, you might get lucky with that one bird that has all the field marks that stand out but more often you will be presented with views of a bird where it is tough to make the distinction and nail the ID.

This one is for you to figure out.
Here we have two spizella candidates. The one on the left is an obvious Chipping Sparrow. Right...or maybe not. What do you think? What about the bird on the right?  This is the dilemma many birders face when having obscured views.

Experienced birders have shared some of their observations online and in some birding literature.  For example, using the details around the eyes of both birds to make a distinction has been discussed by some such as David Sibley. Where Chipping Sparrows shows the eye arc above and below broken by a dark line on both front and back. Clay-colored Sparrow, does not show that; hence, what some term the "open face" look. That, is a very useful field mark but what else could one use in the field?

Clay-colored Sparrow Jones Beach, October 2014
Others have also referred to other field mark nuances such as the size and color of the gray nape on a Clay-colored vs Chipping as a way to make the distinction, the lines that run along the sides of the crown onto the nape and the clear lores of a Clay vs the marked lores of a Chipping. 

Same Clay-colored Sparrow as above.
There are many things to look for in distinguishing the two. Here, I will share with you a few tips that I find helpful when comparing the two in the fall. Lores on a Chipping will be dark, while it is pale on a Clay-colored. Nape on a Chipping Sparrow will be brown or brownish with dark streaks, while it would often be grayish with much paler streaks on a Clay-colored Sparrow. Some other field marks to pay attention to include the color of the ear coverts as well as the moustachial stripe.

A different Clay-colored Sparrow. This one photographed in Queens on 11-3-2014.
Using some of these field marks coupled with your own experience should help you in the field.  Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in Chipping Sparrow; any candidate for Clay-colored Sparrow, that is not a slam dunk should be carefully studied before making the call.

Share some of your experiences on what you look for when studying a flock of Chipping Sparrows in trying to find that rare Clay-colored Sparrow. Were you successful? What were the ID clinchers?

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1 comment:

NatureStop said...

Greetings from Dubai! Really enjoyed going through your blog. Have a great week ahead! Will be back soon...