Mystery Bird: White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii

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[Mystery bird] White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]

Image: Richard Ditch, 23 December 2007 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2007:12:23 09:04:20
Exposure Time: 1/350
F-Number: 10.00
ISO: 400

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Rick Wright, author of Aimophila Adventures and Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:

Quick: what's the most abundant winter bird in southeast Arizona?

Mourning Dove is a good guess, but the right answer might be White-crowned Sparrow, a terrifically abundant and conspicuous bird from October to April, occurring in all lowland habitats.

This beautiful image foreshortens the bird's tail a bit, but we can still tell that this is a long-tailed, pot-bellied, large-headed sparrow, pointing us in the direction of the Zonotrichia, or "crowned sparrows." Once we've got that far, we can ignore most of the traditional "field marks" to concentrate on one easily seen character: the bill color.

Among the zonos north of Mexico, White-throated and Golden-crowned have dusky bills, and White-crowned and Harris's have bright bills. Easy, isn't it? You'd never confuse a Harris's Sparrow with a White-crown, and you'd never confuse a White-throat with a Golden-crown.

White-crowned Sparrows are famous among birders and beloved of ornithologists for their geographic variation in plumage and, particularly, voice. The common winter White-crown in Arizona is the pale-lored northerly breeder gambelii; darker of lore and of bill is oriantha, a Rocky Mountain breeder that winters for the most part in Mexico. Right now, in mid-May, all of the White-crowned Sparrows here around Tucson are oriantha, taking it easy as they don't have much farther to go to reach the breeding grounds; gambelii took off weeks ago on the long flight to the northlands, taking with them a lot of the charm of the Sonoran desert.

Review all mystery birds to date.

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White crowned Sparrow?

Strong black and white striped on head. No white throat patch. Yellow sparrow-beak.

I'm going to be really embarrassed if I'm wrong, aren't I?

I vote for White-crowned Sparrow for the same reasons as Bardiac. This might even be identifiable as the gambelii subspecies that breeds in the far north from Alaska to Hudson Bay. That's based on the pale lores, bright white on the head, and orange bill. Anyone looking for another mystery bird (including GrrlScientist herself), there's a nice, blurry one for you right now, over at our Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog.

Thanks for running this mystery bird series!

I agree it's a White-crowned Sparrow. White crown and yellow beak. I'm looking at one out my office window as I write this.

Another lovely portrait by Rich, and a Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow indeed for the reasons Hugh stated as well as the photo's date and location. Gambel's is the common wintering subspecies in Arizona; the dark-lored, pinker-billed Mountain White-crowned (Z. l. oriantha) winters mainly south of us. The few White-crowneds remaining down here near the Mexican border all seem to be Mountains, though it seems odd that the more northerly-nesting Gambel's would migrate so much earlier.

Dang! I thought I was good knowing how to distinguish it from the similar White-throated Sparrow (no yellow lores), but y'all are already on to subspecies. Impressive.

A beautiful shot of a White Crowned Sparrow (for the reasons stated above me). I saw a few of these this past February, and they are a lot bigger than you'd think! Almost the size of a Robin!