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Swamp Sparrow

by Bob Doe

Originally published in Vol. 49, No. 1 (January 2003) of the San Antonio Audubon News

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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