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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Towhees and Sparrows of the Southwest: Featuring Green-tailed Towhee, Black-chinned Sparrow and Rufous-crowned Sparrow

[SE Arizona and SW Texas. April, 2015]

Doesn't it seem that whatever bird species we have in the US -- whether warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes or flycatchers -- there's more of them found in tropical America than here?

While this suspicion will generally be borne by fact -- it isn't always true for every taxon. For example, we have more Thrashers and Towhees here in the US than anywhere else. And, the fact of the US being "Towhee Rich" is the inspiration for this post in which we review 4 Towhees (and 8 Sparrows) belonging to the New World family of sparrows that were encountered in Southeast Arizona and Southwest Texas earlier this year:
  1. Green-tailed Towhee
  2. Spotted Towhee
  3. Canyon Towhee
  4. Abert's Towhee
  5. Black-throated Sparrow
  6. Black-chinned Sparrow
  7. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  8. White-crowned Sparrow
  9. Lincoln's Sparrow
  10. Song Sparrow
  11. Chipping Sparrow
  12. Yellow-eyed Junco
There are 8 Towhees (genus Pipoli) on this planet -- aside from the 2 Mexican Towhee endemics, the remaining 6 can all be found in the US. Towhees are large, stout New World sparrows; and while most are drab in plumage like their sparrow kin, some of them can be quite striking. And none is more striking than the  Green-tailed Towhee:

Green-tailed Towhee seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon, SEAZ
The Green-tailed Towhee is found across much of the Western US. It has a grey body with olive-lime wings and tail. The throat is white and the crown is a bright chestnut. The Green-tailed Towhee is found in brush habitat where it likes to forage on the ground scratching for seeds or insects.  Green is an unusual color in sparrows (here in the US seen in this Towhee and the Olive Sparrow) and our remaining Towhees show mainly tans and browns.

Spotted Towhee seen at Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon
Spotted Towhee is probably our commonest Towhee in the West. It has a bold look with distinctive white spots on a black back and red eyes. It was earlier considered conspecific with the Eastern Towhee and lumped into the "Rufous-sided Towhee" -- here's a picture of an Eastern Towhee taken in Michigan in June:

Eastern Towhee seen at Lapeer SGA, Michigan
It's easy to see why these sparrows were considered to be the same species.

Canyon Towhee is found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. It has a similar taxonomic history -- it was earlier lumped with California Towhee into the unimaginatively sounding "Brown Towhee".

Of all our Towhees, this is the only US near-Endemic -- Abert's Towhee:

The black mask is diagnostic. Unlike our other Towhees whose ranges extend well into Canada or Mexico, the Abert's range is almost entirely in the US Southwest with only a small sliver reaching over into Mexico.

Now the Sparrows:
We begin with the Black-throated Sparrow:

Black-throated Sparrow feeding on Ocotillo flowers at Big Bend NP
This gorgeous sparrow is unmistakable with a greyish-brown body, prominent black throat and a white "harness" pattern on its face.

The similar sounding Black-chinned Sparrow also ranges in the desert Southwest but is not as commonly found; it prefers hilly habitat and is known for its "spinning coin" song.

The individual pictured here was observed on the Laguna Trail at Big Bend NP.

Also observed at Big Bend was this beautiful Rufous-crowned Sparrow:

Rufous-crowned Sparrow seen at Burro Pouroff Trail
This grey sparrow with a prominent rufous crown is a specialty sparrow of the Southwest.

Other sparrows included the familiar White-crowned Sparrow:
White-crowned Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon

The beautifully streaked Lincoln's Sparrow:

Lincoln's Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon
And one of our most widely ranging sparrows, the Song Sparrow:
Song Sparrow seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
Another sparrow found nationwide is the Chipping Sparrow:

Chipping Sparrow seen at Davis Mtsn SP, Texas
Finally, we conclude with a specialty Junco -- essentially a Mexican sparrow restricted to a small area in SEAZ and SW New Mexico: Yellow-eyed Junco:
Yellow-eyed Junco seen at Incinerator Ridge, Mt. Lemmon
"Little Brown Jobs" -- a term used in identification desperation resulting from birds such as sparrows seems wholly inappropriate when confronted with spectacular sparrows and towering towhees that are found in our Southwest.

1 comment:

Bob Pelkey said...

Your travels offer great rewards, Hemant. Continue to be inspired.