Friday 23 December 2016

Fox Sparrow - ***ESPECIAL***

On 17 Dec 2016 Julie Cappleman noticed what she thought at first was an odd junco at the feeder in Portugal Cove South, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  When she realized it was heavily streaked on the underside she called Dave Shepherd to the window.  He realized it was a 'western' Fox Sparrow.

Word was spread and people from St. John's drove the 90 minutes to PCS to see this extraordinary Fox Sparrow. Western Fox Sparrows are not something you hear much about in the east. This is perhaps because they do not make the headlines as western Fox Sparrows are not a full species like say Golden-crowned Sparrow or Harris's Sparrow or Spotted Towhee - species that always make the Regional news and beyond when occurring in northeastern North America. 

I got to see the bird on 22 December.  It was an amazing looker. Striking bird compared to the abundant breeding Fox Sparrow of Newfoundland.  With photos secured and back home looking at them on the computer screen the work of trying fit this bird into the proper subspecies slot began.  It was more complicated than I expected. It probably requires more than run of the mill field guides which is all I have on the subject.  Because the bird has a distinct gray under tones to the head and in good light a reddish undertone to the back and spotting on breast, my current vote is for the Slate-coloured Fox Sparrow of the Interior West.  The Sooty Fox Sparrow of the Pacific Coast should lack just about all gray and reddish tones.  However, it was remarkable how the bird could look like a classic Sooty Fox Sparrow in some lights and then in others the reddish and gray tones would appear.
[There has been a unanimous vote for Sooty Fox Sparrow from a number of west coast US birders and others who viewed these photographs]

Below are a sampling of the 22 December 2016 photos from Portugal Cove South, NF.

This last photo is for reference - a standard Newfoundland Fox Sparrow from Trepassey 30 Nov 2014


  1. The Fox Sparrow complex is definitely messy, as each western group (with the exception of Thick-billed) is quite variable, perhaps as a result of mixing genes with other groups. For a Slate-colored, I would expect to see a more contrasting, paler gray back and a cleaner breast - I see a lot on this bird that looks good for Sooty (which I see a great many of), including the subtle reddish and grayish tones, messy breast pattern and lack of strong contrast anywhere. Most Sooty FOSPs I see have noticeable yellowish tones in the bill though.

    The confusing altivagans subspecies is also something worth looking into.

  2. Hi Bruce - I really enjoy reading your Blog!

    This bird is similar with the "Sooty" Fox Sparrows that winter here on the Pacific Coast, and I see many birds of these *very confusing* subspecies pass through or winter in my yard in Olympia, at the south end of Puget Sound.

    The subspecies of Sooty Fox sparrows can & do show grey in the face, and reddish in the wings, flanks, back & tail - especially depending on the light. The Slate-colored subspecies, which we have as breeding birds in the Cascades Mountains, show a distinctively contrasting greyer back, and the breast streaking tends to be finer & darker.

    So cool that you have one of our Sooty Fox Sparrows on your side of the continent! Now, if I could just find one of your "Red" Fox Sparrows out here!

    Jon. Anderson
    Olympia, Wash., USA
    festuca @ Comcast . net


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