White-crowned Sparrows – good enough for Gambelii?

HY Eastern WCSP, Greenwich, October 2018

One of the oft-reported subspecies in New England is the gambelii subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, colloquially known as Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow. The main features that birders key into when comparing/contrasting with the more local eastern forms are the orange (instead of pinkish) bill and the pale lores (rather than a short dark line connecting the lateral crown stripes).

However, due to the clinal nature of the various subspecies and integration in some breeding areas of some populations, subspecific identification is often problematical or impossible.

I recommend reading this great treatise on this group – David’s Sibley’s article here.

The main forms that occur are noted below:

  • Eastern Taiga (Eastern) Z. l. leucophrys
  • Western Taiga (Gambel’s) Z. l. gambelii
  • Interior West (Mountain) Z. l. oriantha
  • Pacific group (Nuttall’s) Z. l. nuttalli group (includes Nuttall’s Z. l. nuttalli and Puget Sound Z. l. pugetensis subspecies

Essentially, in the note below, I’ll refer to them as he does, the Western Taiga (Gambel’s) and Eastern Taiga (Eastern).

I was taking a walk this afternoon after an outpatient procedure when I came across two White-crowned Sparrows feeding with other sparrows in a disused lot by the beach at Sandy Point. As always I noted the bill color and lores and was struck by the adult’s bright orange-yellow bill and what appeared to be pale lores. Because the loral feathers can often become fluffed up or displaced, I sometimes get a pale-lored impression on both adult and HY Eastern WCSP. However, on these two birds, they did appear to be as pale-lored as many known Western Taiga (Gambel’s) .

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

It was joined during the time I watched it by a HY WCSP, which, surprisingly, also appeared pale-lored and orange-billed! In the words of wise CT birder Greg Hanisek, the words “That’s one too many!” rang in my ears. It was late in the afternoon and the pictures aren’t great (and click on them for larger images), but these two individuals seem to show characters associated with the Western Taiga (Gambel’s) form.

Adult WCSP (right) and HY WCSP (left) showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

Other features noted was that both individuals were quite greyish on the ear-coverts and throat, and had only a pale brown wash on the flanks, restricted to the rear and a bill that appeared on the small side – another pro-Western Taiga (Gambel’s) feature. The HY was quite dusky and almost montone which made the rich chestnut mantle and lateral crown stripes, yellowish bill and pale lores stand out.

Adult WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelii, New Haven, December 2018

HY WCSP showing characters of the Western Taiga race gambelli, New Haven, December 2018

I am not making any concrete affirmations here, but I think these birds may be indicative of what people, in my opinion, rightly or wrongly, are calling Western Taiga (Gambel’s) here in New England.

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