Thursday, 24 March 2011

West Coast Sailing 3: LBJ Confusion

I know I’m not the only beginning field birder who is challenged by the “little brown jobs”.  I had a few hours birding around Victoria in February and was able to locate a lifer Spotted Towhee.  White breast, red flanks, black back and hood – straightforward enough.  Unfortunately this particular Towhee was feeding in a flock of several dozen sparrows which included such species as "the one with brown stripes", "the one with tan stripes", and "the one with brown and tan streaks".

Clearly an area that I need to improve if I want to get more serious about understanding sparrows and their behaviours, not to mention building my life list.  This issue was brought to a head when we took a hike on Russell Island, just off the south-east of Saltspring Island.  At the old homestead on the tip of island we found several American Robins along with some Dark-eyed Junco's (Oregon) and two of these guys.

This individual was very obliging in hopping out onto a branch in clear view in response to a quick "pishing" noise.  I grabbed my field guide back on the boat and quickly came to the excited conclusion, base on the white throat and yellow supraloral spot that this was an uncommon White-throated Sparrow.  Hmmm.... but the breast was just a little bit too streaky and those malar stripes are pretty dark.  I went home feeling less than comfortable with the ID.  

On the weekend, with my full library on hand, I had a look through the excellent "Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide" by Beadle and Rising.  The photos available in that publication, combined with Sibley's description of the Song Sparrow as being "common and widespread in brushy areas near water", leads me to believe that Song Sparrow is the correct ID.  

Whether or not that ID is correct, I take three things away about LBJ identification from this experience:

1) Learn birdsongs
2) Get out with more experience birders more often
3) Accept that not every bird seen can be identified

Any confirmation, feedback, or tips for dealing with "little brown jobs" are welcome in the comments. 


  1. I think this might be a Fox Sparrow. Difficult to tell without seeing the breast, although there is a hint of a chevron streak there. Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrows are similar and both are quite variable, which makes the ID challenge even harder.
    In Calgary, Song Sparrows are quite common, but Fox Sparrows are rarely seen.
    Interesting that the bird has bands on both legs.

  2. I showed the sparrow photo to a local expert birder, and he believes it is a Song Sparrow. He says the west coast birds are larger and darker than our inland races, and this bird has a pronounced eyebrow stripe, which the Fox Sparrow lacks.

  3. Thanks for the feedback! That's consistent with my further reading: I found an almost perfect matching photo in "Birds of the Pacific Northwest Mountains" by Jan Wassink.