The Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis, the only species of the genus Passerculus, is the Rodney Dangerfield of sparrows in that it gets no respect.  Though it has a nice yellow supercilium, this field mark, at least in the northeastern United States, is neither as impressive as the yellow at the front of the White-throated Sparrow‘s supercilium nor as crowd pleasing as that mark on the harder-to-see Seaside Sparrow.  Often birders refer to the breast of a Savannah Sparrow as “like a Song Sparrow but without the strong central spot” but one never hears someone refer to a Song Sparrow‘s breast as like a Savannah Sparrow but with a strong central spot.  Not only that, but Lincoln’s Sparrows have a similar breast pattern but with the added bonus of buffy coloration!

Even worse is that there was at one time a real reason for listers to seek out a version of Savannah Sparrow that breeds only on Sable Island in Nova Scotia and winters on the east coast of the United States down to Georgia, the pale Ipswich Sparrow, once a species in its own right, but now reduced to the subspecies P. s. princeps.  The sedentary southern California saltmarsh subspecies, oft called Belding’s Sparrow, P. s. beldingi, was never considered a full species, at least not so far as I can tell lumped in with the rest of the Savannah Sparrows in 1945, though it is readily identifiable and distinguishable in the field.  Even the Large-billed Savannah Sparrow P. s. rostratus, from Mexico and southern California, fails to make full species status, as it was lumped at the same time as P. s. beldingi (though opinions are changing and it might once again become the species Large-billed Sparrow Passerculus rostratus).

It’s a shame that Savannah Sparrows are often overlooked as LBJs but while other birders ignore them I’ll seek them out and appreciate them for their fine, subtle, plumage; their soft, lisping song; and their willingness to respond to pishing by charging the one pishing, perching on an exposed perch, and staring in a nonplussed way at the pisher.  In other words, they make superb photographic subjects!

Savannah Sparrows don’t even seem to mind being photographed while bathing, whether in a puddle or the wet leaves of a pokeberry bush though, as the last picture shows, they do stay alert for a fast-moving and hungry Sharp-shinned Hawk or other predator.

And though the two shots below are nowhere near as satisfying to share as the shots above, they do show Ipswich Sparrows P. s. princeps.  Note the paler coloration, and, though there is nothing to give them scale, the larger size.

Get out there and find some sparrows, especially overlooked ones like Savannah Sparrows.  You won’t regret it and you may find that you like them!

This post has been submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #59.  Go check it out!

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.