New World spar­rows flock to prairies of south­east Texas

Houston Chronicle - - STAR - By Gary Clark

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.

Kathy Adams Clark

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.

Kathy Adams Clark

Le Conte’s spar­row is a grass­land spar­row. See it at the Attwa­ter Prairie Chicken Na­tional Wildlife Refuge near Sealy.

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