New World sparrows flock to prairies of southeast Texas
On the sweeping grasslands of the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, my wife, Kathy, and I recently spent a day watching sparrows.
That word might conjure up visions of the year-round house sparrows that hog bird feeders and scrounge for food in parking lots at fast-food restaurants. But those are a non-native, Old-World species originally brought to New York City in 1851.
We wanted to see our native New World sparrows that migrate to southeast Texas prairies for the winter from breeding grounds across the northern tier of the U.S. and into Canada. Birders call them “little brown jobs” due to their cryptic hues blending with native prairie landscapes.
We began looking for sparrows right after sunrise. They’re exemplars of the phrase “early birds” and become less active by late morning.
It can be frustrating to try to identify the different varieties of grassland sparrows; their similar brownish plumage with streaks of black and tones of gray and white is not that distinct. But with modern cameras and lenses, you can get photographs of hard-to-identify sparrows and later figure out what kind they are.
Here are three sparrows easy to see on the Attwater Refuge.
The most numerous are savannah sparrows, flushing up from the roadside grass, flying as though stair-stepping in the air and landing in clear view along the road or on a grass twig or fence wire.
They have grayishbrown plumage marked by dark streaks plus a white underside with dark streaks and a faint beige or off-white eyebrow grading to a yellowish tint at the base of the beak. Dark mustaches and a sometimes dark stickpin on the breast are identification clues.
The beautiful LeConte’s sparrow is a quintessential grassland sparrow. It forages in grass clusters and occasionally pops up on a twig to reveal a handsome flaxen-brown plumage set off by a striking golden-orange face.
“You can’t mistake a LeConte’s sparrow once you spot it,” Kathy says.
Another easy bird to spot is the vesper sparrow, named for its twilight song resembling tinkling vesper bells signaling ecclesiastical services. The perky bird perches on the fence wires as you approach the refuge headquarters.
It has a prominent white eye-ring and dark patch behind the eye. White trim on the outer tail feathers may be helpful in identifying the bird as it takes flight.
Don’t fret about identifying all the sprightly sparrows. Go to the refuge and enjoy watching them against the panorama of a native prairie with flocks of snow geese cackling in the air overhead.
The vesper sparrow is named for its twilight song resembling tinkling vesper bells. See it at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy.
Le Conte’s sparrow is a grassland sparrow. See it at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy.