Date: 4/11/17 3:43 pm
From: Grant Canterbury <grantandstacy17...>
Subject: [obol] Song Sparrow/Fox Sparrow confusion
Lars -

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.

--
Grant Canterbury
<grantandstacy17...>

 
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