Friday, September 28, 2012

Two Sparrows

Song Sparrow

Here are digiscoped portraits of two similar looking sparrows of the same genus, Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). These two species can be challenging to separate even for experienced birders. I've previously written that the plumage pattern of Lincoln's Sparrows appear tighter, compact, almost speckled versus long stripes. The Song Sparrow's flanking brown stripes are thicker compared to the fine flecks of black on the Lincoln's Sparrow. I also see fewer colors on most eastern Song Sparrows (white, brown, and gray), whereas Lincoln's warmer coloration offers a bit more complexity (white, tan, brown, gray, copper, black). Looking at photographs is one thing, but identifying a bird in the wild can be an entirely different identification experience.

Lincoln's Sparrow

On Lincoln's Sparrow Pete Dunne once wrote, "There is no trick that could be offered here for making this identification. Only mindfulness will work." And a lot of practice, I'll add. Still, no one is infallible when it comes to bird identification and I've been corrected by more experienced birders than myself, but always gracious and humble in thanking them for the assist.

So, how do identification errors occur? There are a myriad ways, to be sure. It could be inexperience with a particular species, or maybe an obstructed view or too brief of a look. Lighting can be a factor. Sometimes experienced birders make what I refer to as database index or fetching errors. This occurs in a moment of intense birding when dozens of species are present, flittering about, and you’re trying to rattle off their names as quickly as you see them. A hit registers, but it’s premature and you blurt out a name that just so happens to be wrong – you know practically it the moment you do it. "House Wren? I didn't mean House Wren! How did I get House Wren out of that?" These can be amusing at times and it’s good to laugh at ourselves on occasion. With bird identification, as with any avocation or vocation, one improves with repetition.

Lincoln's Sparrow

When I identify Lincoln's Sparrows in the field today, it's an almost instantaneous process and not one of diagraming the salient plumage characteristics. One can reach a level of skill where the identification hits you the moment you see the bird. I think this is what Pete is talking about. But perhaps what's most important is not whether we can identify a bird correctly, but taking the time to observe and appreciate its beauty, its life, and its brief existence within the boundaries of our own. And also consider what small actions or sacrifices we can do or make daily to conserve vital habitat birds need in order to survive on this planet.

Think globally, bird locally!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

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