It’s not every day a visitor comes to the Scherman Hoffman feeders that can’t be identified by director Mike Anderson. But this one was a puzzler.
Take a look at this picture Steve Byland took as he looked below the feeders with Mike by his side.
Looked at from the back, it’s a sparrow, perhaps a white-throated sparrow. What makes me think that? The stripes on the head and the reddish brown feathers on the back.
You see white-throats every winter. Besides the distinctive white patch at the throat there are stripes on the head that come to a yellow tip next to the eyes. In spring you hear the high-pitched whistle that sounds like “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Unlike common sparrows, there is no black bib or streaking on the white front.
Now look at this bird head-on, in Steve’s second picture. Now suddenly we have something completely different. It seems to have the gray head and pinkish bill of a junco, another common bird of winter you will see in your backyard. Male juncos are slate-gray above, white below, has white on either edge of its tail.
(The ones in New Jersey tend to be males, who stay farther north than the browner females in winter, presumably to get to prime northern breeding territory faster come spring.)
When Mike and Steve saw this bird beneath the feeders they saw more than an interesting bird. They saw a topic of discussion for the greater birding community.
If there’s anything birders like better than getting into the field and adding to their life lists it’s finding a rarity, something miles from where it’s supposed to be. And then they love to tell the world about it, drawing others to the scene.
We’ve had a lot of interesting visitors in the east this mild winter. A western broad-tailed hummingbird spent months at New York’s Museum of Natural History, allowing many people, myself included, to see this unusual visitor. There have been reports in upstate New York of a visiting gray-crowned rosy finch, another western bird and there have been reports of birds that didn’t go south for the winter such as the yellow-breasted chats in New York’s Bryant and Union Square parks (I saw the one at the latter). Even Scherman Hoffman’s feeders were recently visited by a redheaded woodpecker.
So Steve, with great trepidation, went to the New Jersey bird list and voiced the possibility that what he had photographed was a black-chinned sparrow, a bird of Mexico, the US southwest and part of California.
As the old punch line goes, could happen.
I and others were thus alerted to this strange bird. I couldn’t get to Scherman Hoffman to see the visitor but I am told a lot of people did visit and a lot more – including no less than Kenn Kaufman, of the Kaufman field guides and “Kingbird Highway” himself – gave their opinions via email.
The prevailing consensus is this is some sort of strange hybrid between a junco (likely male) and a white-throated sparrow based on a number of factors including field marks, where the bird was seen and how it was acting.
“I look for distinguishing characteristics or ‘field marks,’” Mike told me. “Because we all have experience watching birds, we expect to see some species in certain places at different times of year and recognize a general impression of size and shape. A gray-headed bird with a thin, ivory bill in the weeds under the feeders in March is probably going to be a junco. When it turned to the side and presented the field marks of a sparrow on the back and didn’t present the white outer tail feathers of a dark-eyed junco it suddenly became something new and intriguing.”
That’s when Mike considered the possibilities.
“Could it be a black-chinned Sparrow? No, probably not, they don’t really occur east of New Mexico,” Mike said. “Time to take some notes on the field marks that don’t fit what we’re used to seeing. I can either draw/write my own field notes or ask the professional photographer, Steve Byland, standing next to me to snap some pictures. Steve got some really good pictures that revealed the field marks we saw with the naked eye: dark head and brown streaked back. His photos also showed faint white on the throat and brown stripes going up the neck and onto the back of the head. Added to what we initially saw, these field marks don’t really fit with any birds in the field guides. After sending the pictures around the consensus is that this bird is a hybrid between a dark-eyed junco and a white-throated sparrow.”
“Also funny was the behavior was more sparrow-like for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on,” Steve Byland added, a common feeling when you are seeing something unusual out in the field. When he first saw it under the bushes he thought it might’ve been yet another type of sparrow, the white-crowned, which is of the same family as the white-throated but is a bit bigger and grayer in front, with a pinkish bill like the junco.
Also, he said, “it dug at the ground with both feet like a white-throated sparrow. I can't say that I've ever seen a junco do this, but I may just not have noticed.”
Mind you, if this is a hybrid it is an usual coupling. I would’ve preferred it to be the black-chinned sparrow, which to me is more likely than a hybrid of two different types of sparrows that don’t interbreed as a rule.
That I can even participate in this discussion shows I’ve learned something in my years as a birder.
As a child my mother pointed at a red bird and said, that is a cardinal. The blue one is a blue jay. The one picking worms off the lawn is a robin. The others were pigeons or sparrows. That’s all she knew and that’s all birds are to most people, a few familiar ones and everything else. Something big flying over you is a “hawk,” whether it is a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture or a bald eagle.
A new world opens if you take the time to learn just how many different types of birds are out there. There is always an identifying field mark, something unique to that bird. It is the basis of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides (with acknowledgement to Ludlow Griscom) you can find in any bookstore, including Scherman Hoffman’s. Songs are another way to identify a bird. So is habit. You expect to see juncos and white-throats in the backyard in winter. You don’t expect to see a hummingbird whose wings beat at thousands of times a second and need a lot of pollen or insects to be able to do that.
Mind you, I still get stumped. This is a picture of a bird I saw in a central New Jersey grassland last year and I still don’t know what it is. Do you?
Whenever I see or hear something unusual my first thought is “what the heck is that?” or some variant. If I can find the bird I try to note where it is – tree (type and how high), ground, shore, grassland – color, any field marks, then mark down some way to remember the song and later check the guide I leave in the car or back at home. (If you bury your face in the field guide to identify one thing while outside you miss the chance of seeing and identifying more.)
With spring coming on you are likely to find a great variety of birds passing through Scherman Hoffman on their way north. Every year I have to relearn the field marks and songs of various warblers, for instance, so I can tell the difference between, say, a magnolia and a myrtle.
Years ago, at the lower Scherman lot early one morning, I thought I’d seen a Blackburnian warbler – a masked, orange-fronted bird – in one of the trees. I told Mike Anderson about it during our bird walk. When I later saw a black-throated green warbler with its masked face, light front, black throat and green on the back, I realized I’d misidentified the first bird, which had been sitting high in a tree with the sun full on it, making it look more orange than it was.
Things like that always happen out in the field and Mike knows bird identification is not an exact science. Besides, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility a Blackburnian could’ve been passing through that day, which is why he was kind enough to believe me.
After all, stranger things have happened – as the latest feeder visitor can attest.
(My thanks to Mike Anderson for sharing his thoughts and Steve Byland for permission to reproduce his photos.)
Margo D. Beller
Scherman Hoffman has one-hour bird walks on the Sanctuary grounds every Friday & Saturday morning starting at 8am. Meet in the parking lot right outside the Nature Store.