Tuesday 20 December 2016

"Sooty" Fox Sparrow in Newfoundland

The Fox Sparrow is a very common species in Newfoundland from early April until the end of October, with a few individuals over-wintering on the island every year. It is also an extremely variable species with 13 or more different populations described, which are clustered into four unique "groups".

Our Fox Sparrow, fits into  the group of "Red" Fox Sparrows. It isn't hard to see why:

The "Red" Fox Sparrow has the widest range of our 4 groups and is the only group found in the East.  The other 3 groups are restricted to the Western half of North America.

"Red" Fox Sparrow singing at Long Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland

Anyone familiar with our "Red" Fox Sparrow who visits the West coast will have no trouble noticing the differences. The most common group out West is the "Sooty" Fox Sparrow which breeds as far away as the Pribilof islands in Alaska and as far South as Washington state. This group, as the name suggests, is significantly dark and lacks the intense red colouration of our Eastern Fox Sparrows.

Having seen the "Sooty" group of Fox Sparrows in BC over the years I knew there was no way of confusing our red ones for their sooty ones. But I never really thought of them as possible vagrants in the East. That was until Dave Shepherd, of Long Point Bird Observatory fame, reported a "Western" Fox Sparrow at his feeder in Portugal Cove South, Newfoundland. He and his wife, Julie, immediately knew that it was something different and took the time to observe and study the bird and concluded that it was of the "Sooty" group - which has been confirmed by various experts.

Here it is:

This is the breeding range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows based on eBird reports:

And here is the wintering range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows:

Definitely a group restricted to the coastal area West of the Rocky Mountains!

A closer look reveals that there are very few records of "Sooty" Fox Sparrow in the East, with the Newfoundland bird appearing in orange:
Quite possible a first record for Atlantic Canada!

Certainly, it is under-reported in the East since it doesn't have full species status, and feeder watchers (where a bird like this would show up) might pass it off as a regular sparrow. Perhaps this sighting will spur more interest in these Western Fox Sparrows and more records will be dug up or discovered.

The Portugal Cove South bird was first found during a harsh winter storm with winds gusting up to 130km/h. It could barely stand up and wasn't looking very healthy on its first day. But, thanks to a generous supply of seeds, it was back to full fitness today.

Look at those dark flanks! The streaking towards the back blurs into a sooty gray wash.

For those interested in the sub-species identification of this bird it has been suggested that it belongs to the fuliginosa sub-species by some, and the sinuosa/townsendi sub-species by others. Personally I don't know enough to make an opinion on this, and the resources I read provided very limited differences between these sub-species. Even online articles were inconclusive.

Like many species, the more Northern populations of Fox Sparrow migrate the furthest South, which makes them more susceptible to finding their way far off course. This would suggest that our bird may belong to one of the more Northern sub-species.

The undertail coverts of this Sooty Fox Sparrow were quite striking with a buffy/tan colour as the base, with chevron-shaped markings on each of the feathers. The "Red" Fox Sparrow, at best, has faint markings similar to these but often shows no discernible markings on the undertail coverts.

The "Sooty" Fox Sparrow really is a different beast. But just because it's different doesn't mean it should be its own species (although some people have already designated it as such). Drawing arbitrary lines is always difficult with highly variable species like the Fox Sparrow.

Some other random highlights from today:

This adult female Harrier was seen hunting the coast along the Cape Race road:

I've had an interest in studying these late December harriers in Newfoundland ever since the late Martin Garner put out some excellent books on the frontiers of bird identification with harrier as one of his favoured groups to study. The obvious hope, for me, is to turn one of our December harriers into a European Hen Harrier.

This is my first time getting good enough photos to study the finer details of a December harrier in Newfoundland. The outermost primary (P10) seems to have three dark bars, and P8 (the 3rd outermost primary) has 5 dark bars - both features suggesting Hen Harrier. But the neck streaking seems to strongly favour our regular Northern Harrier.

Definitely something I will be studying more keenly in the future.

And the continuing White-winged Dove in Renews: