Tuesday, December 13, 2016 Red-breasted Sapsucker

Seward, Alaska

This morning in the usual predawn twilight while I stood watching my neighbor’s heated hummingbird feeder, a large, dark raptor stroked through the yard and landed in the dark heart of a spruce tree. After a moment or two, I could see a dark blur fly away; a bird mystery that may or may not be resolved.

With the 13 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, 30+ ROBINS, WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, and PINE GROSBEAKS, plus numerous PIGEONS in this neighborhood, it’s no surprise that a raptor would drop in to dinner. I hope it is refound in time for the Christmas Bird Count on December 17. Count Week starts tomorrow!

My target species today was the RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER. I waited for the lazy sun to rise and illuminate my world, then drove to the site. At first, all I found was a gorgeous orange VARIED THRUSH sitting quietly in a Mayday tree in the shade. I traced a loud, steady chipping to a nearby male OREGON JUNCO, another handsome bird. He hopped through the tangled tree branches closely followed by a reddish sparrow. I took photos for later reference.

Suddenly, the Sapsucker flew into the yard and pasted himself to the tree trunk completely motionless, head tucked in. He looked cold and none too chipper. Slowly, he seemed to warm up, and stuck his head up to look around. Then he flew to the suet feeder and ate hungrily. I was so glad to see he had a food source besides frozen sap!

The Varied Thrush, Oregon and Slate-colored Juncos gleaned suet scraps from below while a DOWNY WOODPECKER fed at another suet feeder.
I left quietly to let the birds feed in peace, thrilled to see that Sapsucker!

After poring over my various bird books and getting more and more confused, I sent my mystery sparrow photos to the experts. It sorta looked like a Song Sparrow, but was so much smaller, more reddish, and shorter tailed than our usual chunky, dark Kenai Song Sparrows.

Thanks to Steve Heinl in SE who quickly ID-ed it as a Song Sparrow similar to his SE species. Steve noted that it’s hard to tell which subspecies with certainty as SE has two subspecies, merrilli and rufina. Luke agreed that it could be a merrilli or rufina. I never heard of either before this!

Many thanks to Luke DeCicco who provided the following details:

“Although you may be surprised, this is a Song Sparrow, but not the ones you are used to. Although its bill is slightly longer than I'd like to see, this bird looks consistent with the subspecies merrilli of mainland southeast AK. As you noticed, these critters are smaller, more rufous, and less lanky in appearance than the typical Song Sparrows of coastal south-central.

I found one of these on Middleton Island in fall 2011, and there is a single spring record from Tok, these being the only extralimital records of this subspecies for AK, outside of the mainland southeast range.” 

I don’t feel too bad about not recognizing this Song Sparrow. According to several websites, Song Sparrows have the greatest number of genetically distinct populations of any bird in North America. https://www.prbo.org/calpif/htmldocs/species/riparian/song_sparrow.htm

And this particular subspecies should not be in Seward. The normal range for Merrill’s Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia merrilli, is southeastern Alaska (Glacier Bay), central British Columbia to southwestern Alberta and northwestern Montana; winters to central California, northern Mexico.

Here’s a link to a nice article on the Kenai Song Sparrow with reference to Luke and M.m.merrillii:

There is always more to learn about birds, including our usual backyard birds. That is just another reason why birding is an irresistible, life-long passion.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold

Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter

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