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home : • birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

10/10/2012 11:09:00 AM
Maine's sparrow -
Lincoln’s Sparrow - Photo by Don Reimer
Lincoln’s Sparrow - Photo by Don Reimer
by Don Reimer

Pulling out of my driveway at dawn, I notice dozens of small birds flitting low through my headlight beams; they are all sparrows. Fall is a good time to watch for migrating sparrows around edges of fields and weedy roadways. Decked out in their intricate patterns of browns, grays and whites, sparrows present a marked contrast to our colorful spring warblers. In their own subtle way, though, they are equally beautiful and appealing. We note slight differences within the typical fall sparrows in terms of their body size and shape, bill size and length of tail. For example, the familiar Song Sparrow has a long tail that bounces up and down when the bird flies. Savannah Sparrows, a grassland ground-nester, resemble Song Sparrows to some extent but have a relatively short tail.

On a recent fall birding trip to Monhegan Island, I tallied 10 separate sparrow species in various grassy and brushy habitats. What were these sparrows? White-Throated, White-Crowned, Chipping, Clay-Colored and Lark sparrows (both post-breeding wanderers from regions west of New England), Dark-Eyed Junco, Savannah, Song, Swamp and Lincoln's sparrows.

Like many of the island birders, I was particularly interested in seeing the Lincoln's Sparrow for several reasons. This sparrow has definite Maine connections since it was named for Thomas Lincoln, a 20-year-old man from Dennysville, Maine, who accompanied John James Audubon on his two-year expedition to Labrador in 1833 in search of new bird species. Audubon had heard an unfamiliar birdsong amidst thick cover and dispatched a group to collect the specimen. When young Thomas Lincoln returned to the vessel with the mystery bird in hand, Audubon named it "Tom's Finch" (or "Lincoln's Pinewood-Finch" as it appears on Audubon's first sketch of the bird) in Lincoln's honor.

Lincoln's Sparrows are a medium-sized, streaky sparrow, similar in appearance to its close cousins the Song and Swamp sparrows. Smaller and more delicate, the buffy, finely streaked breast band is a diagnostic field mark. An orange-buff whisker (malar) stripe sets off the lower face. A white or buffy eye-ring, grayish head and white belly complete the picture.

These birds are quite secretive and skulky, granting brief views to birders and predators alike. On their nesting grounds, the males even limit their song sessions while eggs are being incubated. Lincolns forage on the ground in dense vegetation, mainly eating insects and seeds. Their breeding habitat is wet thickets or shrubby bogs across Canada, Alaska, and northeastern and western U.S. Maine constitutes the southern edge of the breeding range for the eastern populations.

In the pioneering era of Audubon's ornithological studies, "shotgun science" was the most practical and effective way of gathering and cataloguing birds that were previously unknown to science. Optical equipment was generally unavailable for field purposes in those times. The first binocular telescope was invented by J.P. Lemiere in 1825 and the modern prism binocular was invented in 1854 by Ignatio Porro of Italy. Many of the newly discovered species were conveniently named for birding acquaintances or the places where specimens were initially identified and collected, such as the Philadelphia Vireo and Nashville Warbler.

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