This time of year brings about lots of change. Chilly breezes signal the arrival of cooler weather. Leaves begin to senesce, draping the mountainsides with blankets of flaming red and vibrant amber. The days become shorter and shorter, tired from long hours of lighting up the summer sky. These seasonal changes also bring new visitors to the region. With the fresh autumn breeze comes a wave of sparrows that migrate through and overwinter in Southern Appalachia.
These “LBJs” or “Little Brown Jobs,” as they are called in the birding community, bring about identification nightmares for the novice birder. Upon first glance, many of North America’s sparrows look dreadfully similar – small, brown, streaky. Teasing apart the unique details of each species can be an arduous exercise of any birder’s ID skills. However, finding and identifying sparrows can actually become quite enjoyable. One such instance is finding a Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) in Southern Appalachian during fall migration.
Lincoln’s Sparrows are incredibly charismatic birds for those who spend some extra time enjoying their intricacies. Starting at the head, Lincoln’s sport a finely steaky, brown crown. Their dark eyes are outlined with a thin, pale eye ring. Gray supercilium and auriculars are an obvious trademark for this sparrow. Farther down, the malar stripes mark the transition into a light, buffy brown coloration. This beautiful buffy color extends down the bird’s breast, stopping abruptly about half way down the belly. On the chest and sides, the buffy background is punctuated by fine brown streaking. Below, the belly remains stark white and unmarked. It’s back, like many other sparrows, is uniformly brown with irregular streaking (great for camouflage). To top it off, the Lincoln’s often raises the feathers on its crown, giving it’s head a peaked appearance.
Lincoln’s are easily confused with the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Both use similar habitats in the fall and they share many patterns and colors. The Song Sparrow replaces the Lincoln’s fine streaks with much bolder, heavier lines across the breast. Overall, the Song Sparrow generally lacks the same buffy color as the Lincoln’s. Though both can have a grey supercilium, Songs often display white or brown “eyebrows” instead. Song Sparrows usually do not have a peaked crown either, which can often be very noticeable on the Lincoln’s Sparrow.
During the spring and summer months, Lincoln’s Sparrows claim the wet meadows and riparian zones of Canada, the Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Pacific Northwest as their breeding grounds. During migration, this sparrow heads south for Mexico and parts of the southern US. The Lincoln’s Sparrow is one of my personal favorites because it only spends a brief time in the region. With some searching and a little good luck, one may find a Lincoln’s as they pass through on their travels to their wintering grounds. They turn up in a variety of habitats, especially thickets and areas of slow-moving or standing water. Thickets are the one-stop-shop for protection and a delicious insect meal!
These sparrows are often difficult to find. This is by design – these birds are secretive by nature. They love to spend time in dense cover, rarely straying into the open. Even if one exposes itself, it usually doesn’t linger for long before diving back into the vegetation. Nesting females are particularly sneaky. If they feel threatened on the nest, they will actually run through the grass for several feet, somewhat resembling a small rodent scurrying across the ground, before flying away. Despite their reserved nature, these birds boast one of the most musical songs of all North American sparrows. The males sing a quick burst of beautiful song consisting of warbled, trilling, and buzzing notes that quickly rise and fall. Sadly, this sparrow retires its singing voice by the time migration rolls around, so birders in the region might only hear their chip calls.
Sparrows appear time and time again throughout human history. Biblical tales, folk lore, and music of all ages feature sparrows in some way or another. After finding a Lincoln’s, it is not hard to imagine why sparrows are a universal symbol in human culture. Their secretive personalities combined with muted tones of brown and sharply contrasting streaks give them a subtly beautiful demeanor. October is the prime time to find migrating Lincoln’s Sparrows in Southern Appalachia. Grab some binoculars and give it a go!