Many people consider the Swamp Sparrow as a difficult bird to find in Bexar
County. It is listed in our checklist as "uncommon" during winter.
Yet there are places in the county where it is consistently, if not easily,
found during the winter. The key is to know the habitat that the species likes.
The Swamp Sparrow breeds across much of Canada south of the tundra, from NE
British Columbia through Labrador, and south into the north central and north
eastern U.S. as far south as Nebraska and Maryland. It winters from the southern
edge of the breeding range throughout the south and southeast, including most
of Texas. It is a fairly common vagrant throughout the rest of the country,
particularly along the West Coast.
As the name would indicate, Swamp Sparrows like wet areas, particularly wet
brushy areas around the edges of streams, ponds and lakes. They will occur in
damp brushy fields. The key habitat characteristics are dampness and thick vegetation.
They do not usually occur in marshy vegetation (reeds, cattails) but do occur
regularly along the brushy margins of marshes.
My favorite location for finding Swamp Sparrow is Calaveras Lake. I have seen
over a dozen here in one day. They can generally be found immediately along
the waters edge by the dam. But the "sure fire" place is under the
willows along the shoreline north of the entrance, particularly the stretch
one mile from the end of the pavement. By slowly walking along the edge, you
are almost guaranteed to find at least one. Other good locations include Lake
Braunig (the cove by the boat ramp, and the next one to the east), and the swampy
lowlands by Kearney Lake (on Kearney Road, southwest of Macdona). The birds
are particularly common at this last location, but parking is a problem and,
depending on weed growth along the road, it may be difficult to see the birds.
Most years there are a few birds at Mitchell Lake; the southeast corner of Basin
4 (and Basin 5, when it was available) and along the road behind Basin 1. Other
than that, I have seen Swamp Sparrows along Medio Creek in Medina Base, along
Avenue A (particularly just above the low water crossing), and along the Medina
River at the Gross Lane, Cagnon Road, Loop 1604, and Applewhite Road crossings.
They likely occur along most of our creeks and rivers, in wet, dense brush.
Identification of Swamp Sparrows is not too difficult, given good views. But
getting good views can be a problem. These guys like thick stuff, and generally
do not respond very well to "pishing." But they are active and frequently
will come out into the open, if you are slow and quiet. One reason I like the
Calaveras Lake sites is that there is frequently a strip of open mud under the
willows, and the sparrows will often be out in the open.
Key characteristics for identifying Swamp Sparrows include a reddish crown,
and red in the wings and tail. The face is generally grey, with a prominent
grey eyebrow stripe, and a yellowish malar stripe. The throat is generally clear
white and the breast is grey. The breast may have some indistinct streaking,
but often appears clear grey. The belly is white or very light grey.
There really are only two other species with which you might confuse a Swamp
Sparrow. These are Song Sparrow and Lincoln's Sparrow. Both of these are apt
to occur in the same habitat, and it is likely that you will find all three
species. Song Sparrow is rather easily eliminated, because they have strong
streaking on the breast, and are not as reddish as a true Swamp Sparrow. Lincoln's
Sparrow is more buffy, particularly across the breast, and has more distinct,
but fine, breast streaking. Be aware, though, that both Lincoln's and Swamp
have grey faces and a yellow malar stripe. If you just see the face, you may
mistake a Swamp Sparrow for a Lincoln's. Because of the grey face and reddish
tail, it may be possible to confuse a Swamp Sparrow with a Fox Sparrow. Even
a quick look should eliminate any confusion, however. Fox Sparrow is much larger
and more robust, and has heavy, distinct breast streaking.
Swamp Sparrows are out there right now, waiting to be found. Put on your mud shoes and walk slowly along the willow edges of Calaveras Lake. Not only will you find Swamp Sparrows, but you're likely to find Virginia Rail, Sora, and maybe a bittern as well.
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