Nothing is more daunting when moving to a new continent and getting to grips with the local birds, than having to sort out the 'little brown jobs'. Every country has its share of dazzling, colourful birds and, equally, every country has its tedious little birds that leave must people cold; however, it is often those that offer a tougher identification challenge that particularly appeal to birders - which is why we love gulls so much I guess!!
In Europe, many of the warblers have great songs, but this comes at a cost for the birder - drab plumage, making the birds difficult to identify by sight. In the USA, many people are daunted by the 'sparrows' which are actually New World members of the bunting family. Any small, grey-brown bird with streaky upperparts is going to be mistaken for a sparrow by the uninitiated and this is, of course, what happened when Europeans arrived in North America. Believing the birds to be close relatives of the familiar House Sparrow, the birds were named accordingly but, by the time the mistake was realised, the damage was done. The names were so engrained that no-one was going to change them.
A good number of North American sparrows are familiar yard birds; many of them breed in the far north, especially in the coniferous taiga zone of Canada and Alaska, then move south for the winter in huge numbers. Around Cape May, White-throated Sparrows are pretty much everywhere and you would have to be walking around with your eyes shut (or stuck indoors all day!!) not to encounter them on a daily basis. Fox and Song Sparrows are also daily fare, while all three of these species start to sing long before they head back to their breeding grounds and can really cheer up a dull winter's day (like the grey one outside at the moment!). Other species are a little less common and more localised, but still readily found if looked for; Swamp Sparrows lurk in marshy areas (as the name suggests) and Savannah Sparrows favour edges of saltmarsh and coastal dunes. Incidentally, the latter species is named after the town of Savannah, rather than the grassy habitat of the same name.
So here's a quick photo essay of the wintering sparrows around Cape May. It's not all of them as I haven't managed to get good pictures of the saltmarsh specialists yet, but most of the following can be expected at a well-stocked garden feeder if you keep a keen eye open (and there are even more species to get excited about at migration time too!!).
I start with White-throated Sparrow, as it is by far the commonest and mostly readily seen sparrow around Cape May in winter and therefore functions as a yardstick by which to measure the others - in much the same way as Dunlin does with other waders. Here's a typical adult bird; note the grey wash to the chest, well-streaked upperparts, two weak but obvious wing bars and rufous wash to the wings. Many sparrows can readily be identified by their head pattern alone and most White-throated Sparrows fall in this group. Note the clean white throat patch and strongly striped black and white head pattern with yellow patch on the front end of the supercilium. A distinctive pattern.
Some adult White-throated Sparrows are beautiful little things with head patterns so strong that they could almost be mistaken for a White-crowned Sparrow at a quick glance. However note the strong yellow superciliary patch and clear white throat. This species has quickly become one of my favourite birds over here, as they mooch about unobtrusively like Dunnocks. Like many North American sparrows, they have a distinctive way of searching for food; rather than scratching with one foot at a time like a chicken, they do a two-footed scrape, jumping forward then scraping both feet backwards to try and expose fallen seeds from amongst the leaf litter. This action happens amazingly fast but is very endearing. The habit is perhaps more easily seen in towhees - a larger relative of the sparrows and for this reason, the scratching is sometimes known as the 'Towhee Two-step'.
To show the range of variation in White-throated Sparrows, here's a typical first-winter bird, with a particularly drab head pattern. Note also how chequered the breast can appear on some birds. Some adults (so called 'tan-striped' individuals) keep this buffy wash to the supercilium throughout their lives. Note the typical White-throated Sparrow features here, with the combination of greyish chest, weak but noticeable double wing bar and rusty wash to the tertials.
The second most common sparrow at our garden feeder is Song Sparrow. This species is rather variable as there are a number of different subspecies, but this individual is typical of those seen around Cape May in winter. Note the creamy-white underparts with well-marked brownish streaks and well-streaked head pattern. The head is mostly a series of grey and rufous stripes, with a strong, creamy-coloured malar stripe running down from the base of the bill and a thick, blackish-brown submalar stripe (or lateral throat stripe if you prefer!). Structurally, Song Sparrows often look rather long-tailed and this is often noticeable in flight when they flick the tail up like a Dartford Warbler. Wing bars are rather weak in this species.
Another Song Sparrow, showing how the head can look rather peaked when the crown feathers are slightly raised. Note again the head pattern as above, and also note here how the breast streaking often compacts to form a dark patch on the central breast, similar to a Corn Bunting.
Not the best of pictures but this species has so far proved a little shy and it's a scarce wintering bird around Cape May so I don't get too many chances - but this is one of three that periodically drop into our garden from neighbouring scrub. White-crowned Sparrow is well-named for its most obvious feature - the adults zebra-striped bonce! Note, however, how plain the rest of the head and underparts are. The wing bars are bright and obvious and are saw-toothed rather than clean-edged. This is a noticeably big species when seen with other sparrows and is rather long-legged and long-tailed by comparison.
As with White-throated Sparrows, first-winter White-crowned Sparrows have a subdued head pattern, with the black and white replaced by rust and buff. As with the adults, note the long legs and tail, plain face and underparts, and pink bill.
Fox Sparrows are probably about as common as Song Sparrows in suburban areas and along roadsides and field edges (with Song being commoner overall as they are also common in wetlands). This is a fabulous bird, with its rich russet tones and jaunty behaviour. Fox Sparrows are big and chunky with stout bills and are easily identified. They are generally not present around Cape May until late November but since mid-January up to 10 have visited our feeder at home. The grey nape shawl and supercilium and strong arrow-head markings on the underparts are all good identification pointers.
Chipping Sparrows can be difficult to find in the winter as they flock up and tend to like clearings in woodland rather than backyard habitat, but there are a few regular spots for them. This is one of the smallest of the local sparrows (not counting the stubby-tailed species of the backbays which I'll cover another time) and are rather slender and dainty. Note the overall appearance of a female House Sparrow with plain underparts and streaked upperparts, but note also the contrasting chestnut crown, grey nape and pinkish bill. By the way, the dark line through the lores (between the eye and the bill) is an important feature to eliminate Clay-coloured Sparrow, should you be looking for one!
OK, it's not a good picture, but it was starting to snow when I took this and several degrees below zero, and I wanted to get a record shot for the garden list! Field Sparrows are quite common in hedgerows around us and a group of up to 11 birds has visited our garden regularly to feed on the grass, but they never come to the feeders and really aren't that approachable. This is another small species and is best told by its rather plain face which nicely sets off the bold white eyering. Note also the pink bill and rusty crown - in the field a grey central crown stripe is often visible too.
This species has become the one to look for in Cape May, though once it was apparently the commonest wintering species in the county. American Tree Sparrows breed well up in the Arctic taiga and arrive late in Cape May - usually in late November. Once a species that came in flocks, local birders have notched up a total of about 12 birds in the county this winter with almost all birds being at garden feeders - so it became something of a competition! No-one knows what's happened, but there is no evidence of a population crash so perhaps climate change has resulted in them wintering further north. This small, round-headed species is closest in appearance to Field Sparrow, but note the lack of a white eye-ring, the dark upper mandible and the glaring white, straight-edged wing-bar. This species also has a dark blotch in the centre of the chest, but this is not always apparent and best not used as an identification feature.
The streakiest of all the sparrows wintering around Cape May is the unobtrusive Savannah Sparrow. This is a bird of open ground with sparse patches of cover and is often first noticed by its mouse-like behaviour as it runs from tussock to tussock, using clumps of vegetation as cover. They are most often found along dry tracks or on the upper edges of saltmarshes, but also get into grassy fields and we had up to three visiting our feeders during the coldest, snowiest spells in February. This species is best told by its overall streaky appearance and often rather short-tailed look. Though not always easy to see, the yellow wash to the front of the supercilium is a good feature too.
When seen out in the open in an alert pose, the pipit-like features of Savannah Sparrow can be even more apparent - but note the seed-eating bill.
I put this picture in as it serves to show the darkness of the upperparts of a typical Savannah Sparrow, for comparison with the next picture. Note the pale 'braces' on the back in this shot too.
Any beach visit around Cape May in winter is not complete for me unless I see one of these superb little birds. The tiny population of Savannah Sparrows that breed on Sable Island, off Nova Scotia, are a distinct race and are often referred to as Ipswich Sparrows. Compared with the Savannah Sparrows above, note the broad, pale fringes to the upperpart feathers, giving the bird a very frosty look. These birds winter in very small numbers in sand dunes along the coast and can be very hard to find, but two or three have wintered on the south beach at Cape May this year and brightened many a cold lunch time for me.
Finishing on another real favourite and a classic American sparrow. Swamp Sparrows only occasionally come to feeders (we haven't had one yet) and they are best looked for around freshwater wetlands. Even then, you need a modicum of luck as this can be an ace skulker and is far more often heard than seen. On one particular sunny day, I willed this one all the way along a dead branch and out onto the very end, where it posed amazingly well. Swamp Sparrows are understated, with little in the way of streaking and no bright colours, but look at the fabulous chestnut wings and rich rusty flanks. The dark cap is a good feature too. The lack of streaking below and the grey breast help to distinguish this species from Lincoln's Sparrow, which is an uncommon migrant through Cape May.
Well, that's the little brown jobs covered for now, but I'm sure they'll be appearing here again in due course!