Photograph of a Swamp Sparrow

The Stanislaus “Skulky” Swamp Sparrow Search

1/20/2019
It all started with a phone call from Harold. You know immediately when a call comes in from Harold on a Sunday that he’s got a good bird. The adrenaline kicks in, and my heart rate picks up as I answer, “Hey Harold.” And sure enough, he’s on a Swamp Sparrow over at the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park. I quickly posted the news on the Stanislaus listserve, not sure whether to run out to try and photograph it. So as I’m eating my sandwich, Maria asks what Harold called about (knowing that it had to be a “good” bird somewhere) and I explained “the bird” and that they are only seen about once every five or six years in the county and they are notoriously skulky (hard to see). She promptly replies with, “So, what are you doing just sitting here eating your sandwich? GO GET IT!” (I love how she supports my obsession!)

Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign
Ceres River Bluff Regional Park entrance sign

Map to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park.

I pull in to the Ceres River Bluff Regional Park on Hatch Road, Ceres expecting to be able to drive down to the usual parking spot at the bottom of the bluff. This park got a lot of attention by birders lately when Harold Reeve discovered Stanislaus County’s first ever record of a Black-throated Sparrow here, as well as hosting a Chipping Sparrow which can be hard to find on the valley floor.

Photograph of a Black-throated Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow – Photographed at the Park October 17, 2017

This time though the drive down to the lower parking area was closed, and as I parked, I noticed Ralph Baker’s car right next to me. I eventually caught up to him and Kathy Rasmussen and they were standing with Harold and Sherrie Reeve. They had been watching the bird off and on for a while and pointed out to us the different spots they had seen it at. After about twenty minutes of fruitless searching, they decided to head out and the three of us remained, quietly listening, watching, listening and watching in vain for another hour. The pond area is quite scenic with reeds, willows and oak trees.

The Pond

As we waited I photographed some of the Canada Geese that were swimming around us.

pair of Canada Geese
Canada Geese
Canada Geese swimming
Canada Geese

Eventually I commented that I would need to leave in 20 minutes. They jokingly replied, “Well, then we will leave in 25 because it will pop up right after you leave!!!” I played a few calls off my Sibley’s Bird app. Not realizing that I had stopped the audio, Ralph asks, “Are you still playing the calls because I can still hear it calling…” I wasn’t sure if what we were hearing was a muffled Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler or our target bird. I walked out to the point and played the calls again. Ralph yelled out that a sparrow flew right over to where I was playing the call.

Swamp Sparrows belong to the Genus Melospiza which include the more locally common Lincoln’s Sparrow and Song Sparrow and can be a challenge to correctly identify. They are notorious for keeping in the shadows and “skulking” behind the vegetation.

Sure enough, the bird gradually walks out from the weeds, towards the back of a bunch of vegetation. I yelled at Ralph and Kathy and started trying to focus through the vegetation on the bird in the shadows. The angle was bad and the lighting poor, but I managed to get a couple of decent shots of the bird. It was a LIFER for Kathy and a Stanislaus County bird for Ralph.

Here’s a link to the list of the top Stanislaus County listers

Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Swamp Sparrow hiding in reeds
Photo of a Swamp Sparrow on a branch
Swamp Sparrow
Photo of Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

HOW TO ID A SWAMP SPARROW
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a winter, non-breeding (what birders refer to as basic-plumaged) adult has a white throat with a gray-washed breast and extensive reddish-brown in the wings (primary coverts). Here is an example of just such a bird from their website.

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