Bird Break – Quiet Time with Sparrows


These are the very slow days for birders and bird photographers. All the photos from the trips to the tropics are processed, yet it’s too early for spring migration. And you just can’t stand to take another photo of a Common Redpoll.

As a result, bird photos fall off at Wickersham’s Conscience. But WC, at least, needs a break from economic disasters, carbon dioxide crises and the lunacy in Juneau and Washington, D.C. So let’s spend some quiet time with the most modest of bird families, the sparrows.

WC probably has several hundred photos of White-crowned Sparrows, by far the most common Interior Alaska sparrow. Here’s another shot.

White-crowned Sparrow, Denali Highway

White-crowned Sparrow, Denali Highway

WC has seen White-crowneds in most Alaska habitats; only on the North Slope do they become scarce. It’s also one of the bird species whose song contains its name: “Hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-White-crowned-Sparrow.” During the peak of spring breeding season, it’s hard to be outdoor and not hear a White-crowned Sparrow singing.

Another common Interior Alaska sparrow is the Savannah Sparrow. The distinctive yellow eyebrow or supercilium doesn’t occur in all races of this species, or in juveniles, but the adults in Alaska generally have the yellow eyebrow.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow, Denali Highway

This is another species that is a generalist, breeding in a wide variety of habitats, form the scrub willow of high elevation to swampy interior valleys.

The chunkiest sparrow in Alaska is probably the Fox Sparrow. Highly variable, Alaska races tend to a bit darker, and the Alaska coastal species are almost sooty.

Fox Sparrow, Valdez

Fox Sparrow, Valdez

The rufous in the butt and tail and the size, as well as the heavy streaking in the breast are good field marks for the Alaska races of Fox Sparrow. This bird has a behavioral key, too: a distinctive, two-legged hop and kick to turn over leaves and debris looking for food.

Another larger sparrow in Alaska is the American Tree Sparrow. Unlike the three mentioned earlier, the American Tree Sparrow does prefer trees, or at least large bushes, and is rarely found at high elevations where there aren’t alder and larger willow shrubs.

American Tree Sparrow, Black Rapids Canyon

American Tree Sparrow, Black Rapids Canyon

The dark dot on the center of the chest is a definitive, easy field mark. You’ll see this species singing in the willows along the higher elevations on the Denali Highway, but if you get away from the disturbed areas supporting the willows, out on the open alpine tundra, there are no Tree Sparrows.

Finally, a species that is uncommon in Interior Alaska but fairly common along the coast, the Song Sparrow.

Song Sparrow, Cordova

Song Sparrow, Cordova

Another variable species, but the large grayish eyebrow is a good field mark, and the streaked breast is against a white color and not the reddish-grey of the Fox Sparrow. The tail tip is generally rounded, although you wouldn’t know it from this photo. The strong dark streak behind the eye and dark malar stripe against the white throat make this usually a straightforward identification. Unlike the other four, this species will sometimes hang around in the winter, foraging in the wrack along the seashore.

It’s still a few weeks before the first sparrows – Snow Buntings – arrive in Interior Alaska. For now all WC can do is look over previous photos. But not too much longer now.

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