Sorting through flocks of fall sparrows is fun and can be rewarding. You never know what might be hiding amid the hordes of White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Song Sparrows. Here in the eastern United States you might find a “good” sparrow, like a White-crowned Sparrow or a Vesper Sparrow, a “rare-but-regular” like a Clay-colored Sparrow or a Lark Sparrow, or, if you are extremely lucky, a real rarity like a Brewer’s Sparrow or a Harris’s Sparrow. An important skill for a birder seeking rare sparrows is to know the common sparrows very well to avoid being fooled.

Sadly, a couple of weeks ago, I was fooled pretty well by a common sparrow.

I was exploring Van Saun Park in Paramus, New Jersey, on a Saturday morning before I had to go into my office for a meeting. It was a gray morning, with even a little bit of drizzlymist that made keeping my optics clear difficult. I was working the edges of some grassy areas, sifting through the scads of sparrows that were feeding on a variety of seeds. Mostly, I was dealing with Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Several chippies flushed but one of them immediately caught my eye, seeming paler and buffy in coloration. It briefly perched up on a branch and allowed me to get a couple of record shots and a quick look through my binoculars. Yes! A Clay-colored Sparrow! It didn’t give the best looks but I was pretty sure of the identification. I even called a Bergen County birder I know to let him know of my find of which I was, and I quote myself here, “99% sure.”

drab Chipping Sparrow

I continued my walk after the bird flew across the field, but something about the bird was nagging at me, and I tried to find it again on my walk back to my car. I was lucky and refound it, and this time it was much more cooperative, allowing me to photograph it from relatively close range and in the company of a Chipping Sparrow. I didn’t have much time to look closely, what with my having to head to work, but I was concerned by what looked like dark lores. Once I got to my office and had a couple of minutes I checked out the shots I had gotten and my concern over the lores became a realization that the lores were far too dark for a Clay-colored Sparrow, which always have pale lores.  But I had never seen a Chipping Sparrow with such buffy coloration beneath – they always look pretty solid gray except for young birds, which are streaked beneath.

Chipping Sparrows 2

I called the birder that I had called earlier and let him know that I was much less sure of my identification at this point, but he had already arrived at the park and was unable to find a Clay-colored Sparrow, not surprisingly. I still held the thought in my head that such a buffy bird must at least be a hybrid, but when I finally got home that evening and had time to really figure the bird out I realized it was what Sibley calls a “pale first winter” Chipping Sparrow in his excellent field guide.

And I thought I knew Chipping Sparrows!

Here, for those of you who might be wondering, is a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Clay-colored Sparrow

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 and Desmond Shearwater. 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.