Date: 4/11/17 3:43 pm From: Grant Canterbury <grantandstacy17...> Subject: [obol] Song Sparrow/Fox Sparrow confusion
Yes, I feel your pain! I started birding in Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1970s, using the Golden Guide and the blue Petersons Western Birds edition. I had Song Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, Fox Sparrows on my list. Then when I came to Portland in the 1980s, what I was seeing might as well have been sparrows from an unexplored planet. The Song Sparrows here looked nothing like the illustrations in the guides, rather more like the Fox Sparrow pictures, so Fox Sparrows was what I called them (always rather uneasily). WRONG! I was not birding intensively at the time, but two or three years later I happened to see an actual Fox Sparrow (at least in urban Portland, considerably less common than Song). It was massive, dark, very different - and finally I figured out I had been looking at Song Sparrows the whole time.
So I already knew that Song Sparrows subspecies vary a lot - and I concluded I had been tricked by the same old pattern of geographic variation you find in other bird species. In Anchorage a lot of the birds actually have eastern affinities. The common Yellow-rumped Warbler subspecies is the Myrtle; the common Northern Flicker subspecies is the Yellow-shafted. Red Fox Sparrows in the interior, Sooties on the coast. The eastern varieties go up across Canada through the boreal forest and into interior Alaska. Anchorage is on the border but tends to take after the interior avifauna. So it makes sense; I was used to seeing the light, crisp, eastern-looking varieties of Song Sparrow in Anchorage because that was what we had, and then the darker forms came in along the Pacific coastal strip.
Except... WRONG AGAIN!!
I am profoundly chagrined to say that it was not until *three years ago*, when I went back to Anchorage for a visit, that I realized that with the help of the Peterson and Golden guides I had gotten everything wrong. It was weird that eBird showed Song Sparrow as a review species in Anchorage. I did see one on that trip... on the coast in Seward, looking very much like every dark Song Sparrow in Portland. The eBird distribution map showed Song Sparrows all along the southcentral Alaska coast... but only barely trickling into Anchorage, in a few isolated sightings. The summering Song Sparrow population in interior Alaska that the Golden Guide map *shows as a solid red lobe*... not there. Apparently there actually is no population of eastern-type, crisp brown-and-white Song Sparrow subspecies following the Myrtle Warblers into interior Alaska.
What there is, is swarms and swarms of crisp little Lincoln's Sparrows. Lincoln's Sparrows that are not dramatically different from Song Sparrows anyway to a new birder, and that the Golden Guide, let us say, does not really illustrate in a way to best highlight the key comparative points. Lincoln's Sparrows that I evidently misidentified as a kid, maybe not all the time, but a LOT.
So, as best I can tell, I probably never did see a Song Sparrow in Alaska when I was a kid. I had to go back and redo my life list for one of the commonest birds in North America! But I'll bet that, even at ten years old, I could have cleared up my misconceptions pretty quick if I'd had Sibley or the National Geographic guide.
- Grant Canterbury
*Subject: what species do field guides portray worst?*Date: Tue Apr 11 2017 12:51 pm From: larspernorgren AT gmail.com [...] The Song Sparrows in the Golden Guide were also a problem for me. I kept trying to turn my Song Sparrows here in Oregon into Fox Sparrows. I doubt the Fox Sparrow in the Golden Guide was much better for us on the Northleft Coast. It took me at least three years to separate the two with confidence. I'd like to think if Sibley had been available in 1969 I would have distinguished the two in a matter of days.