A Closer Look: Wintering White-crowned Sparrows in Texas

Sorting out the various subspecies in most species of sparrows can be a vexing and trying experience, especially when you look at birds like Song and Savannah Sparrow, which express a lot of geographic variation. On the opposite side end of the spectrum, White-crowned Sparrows can be mastered once you know what to look for.

Shawneen Finnegan and I recently took a trip to south Texas. During our visit we took the opportunity to study and photograph the two subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows that winter in this region. Coming from Oregon, where we see mostly "Puget Sound" White-crowned Sparrows (subspecies pugetensis) and a few migrant "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrows (subspecies gambelii) in spring and fall, I was anxious to check out the nominate dark-lored "Eastern" birds (subspecies leucophrys) along with getting more exposure to immature Gambel's.


These two photos offer a comparison between a dark-lored Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (above) and pale-lored Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow (below). In addition to the coloration of the lores, note the differences in bill color, which is darker and pinker in "leucophrys" vs. lighter and more orange in "gambelii." Note also that the postocular stripe is bit thicker and seems to curve up a bit at the back on the dark-lored bird and appears thinner and straighter (more horizontal) in the pale-lored bird. To my eye, the black lateral crown stripes and the postocular stripe on adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows (below) usually look narrower than those of other forms of White-crowned Sparrows, which makes their head pattern look white dominant, whereas the broader black striping in other forms makes their head patterns look black dominant. Finally, the gray areas on the lower face, throat and and upper breast of Gambel's are a paler and brighter pearl gray, while the same gray areas on other subspecies tend to be just a bit dingier and have a slight brownish cast. The top bird was photographed on 6 February 2012 in Atascosa County, Texas and the bottom bird was photographed on 17 April 2010 in Eugene, Oregon.


On our first full day of birding we spent the bulk of our time in southern Atascosa and northern Live Oak counties, where we encountered huge numbers of sparrows. We didn't see a lot of White-crowned Sparrows and it was raining pretty hard when we finally came upon a modest flock.  As Matt Heindel had suggested in a conversation the previous evening, dark-lored birds predominated. In fact, that first day we didn't notice any Gambel's. Since the sparrowing (mostly non-White-crowneds) was so good, we decided that we would spend our last morning before flying home back in this same area.

Upon returning a week later to better, albeit still overcast weather, we made an effort to get better looks at White-crowned Sparrows.  Along Co. Rd. 412 in extreme southern Atascosa County we found a cooperative flock that had both subspecies. There were many immatures in the group and in short order we noticed a number of significant differences between them.


This pair of photos features fairly typical immature Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (Z. l. leucophrys). The dark connecting line in the lores is very thin, but apparent in both of these birds. They share some similarities with the adult Eastern White-crowned in that the gray areas on the face, throat, and breast tend to be somewhat dingy and the bill is a bit dusky on the culmen and pinkish overall. Also note the color of their lateral crown stripes, which are pretty dark reddish-brown to dark brown and the fairly broad rusty-brown postocular stripe that curves upward towards the nape. Also note the color of the supercilium, which is gray and fairly dark. Finally, note the rump color and the color of the upperparts in general, which are mostly brown and dull in appearance.


I found that the immature Eastern White-crowned Sparrows we looked at consistently showed the traits described in the caption above. When seen side-by-side with Gambel's, they were much darker on the crown, dingier gray below, browner on the rump, and their supercilia were not nearly as pale or  obvious. Their pale central crown stripes were pretty narrow, so when seen in profile the forecrown looked nearly solid dark brown.


These two birds are immature Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows. In comparing them to the two immature Eastern White-crowned above, there are several fairly obvious differences. Note the difference in both color and pattern on the head. The lateral crown stripes of these two Gambel's are much more colorful and rusty reddish and they have broader pale central crown stripes, which combine to give them to look more suggestive of a basic-plumaged Chipping Sparrow. Also, their supercilia are much paler and creamier in color than any other part of the head or face, thus the supercilum really stands out. Also note the thickness, color, and shape of the postocular stripe, which is much narrower in Gambel's and dusky gray to almost blackish and how it extends straight back to the nape without curving upward. Like adult Gambel's, the gray areas on the face, throat and breast are paler and brighter gray than the gray areas on an Eastern White-crowned. Finally, note the rump and lower back color, which is paler and has a grayish cast and how the rump/lower back contrasts noticeably with the coloration of the upper back streaking.


Aside from the photo of the adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, all of these photos were taken within about a 15-minute span on 6 February 2012. I was photographing from the car, so I didn't move or change light angles for any of the shots of the immatures. These birds were in mixed flock near the intersection of Co. Rds. 411 and 412 in southern Atascosa County, Texas. 

While there were no lifers to be gained in this endeavor, for me one of the most appealing aspects of traveling away from home to go birding is the opportunity to examine and better understand the geographic and subspecific variation in species that I see commonly close to home. In that sense, these birds were "new" and they offered a chance for me to further test my observation skills. While the illustrations in better field guides usually show these variations pretty well, there is not enough space in most to include all the text needed to fully explain the subtle differences, which when compared in life may not be as subtle as they might otherwise appear. In this case, I was struck by how different the immatures of these two subspecies look when seen side-by-side.

Antarctica Tour: The Drake Passage

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

23 January 2012


The Drake Passage -- Crossing the 500-mile expanse of ocean between the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and Cape Horn is no bargain for those susceptible to "mal de mer." (Image sourced online at: www.maps.google.com)

Ann's View: According to our leaders, we are making a trip through moderate waters—only five to seven meter swells and winds of about 30 knots. Despite being medicated, today was the roughest for me seasickness-wise. After a couple of attempts to attend lectures and drawing class in the morning, I headed to bed for good at about 11:30 a.m.  

Our cabin is near the bow of the ship, on the passenger level nearest the water. Our portholes don’t open for good reason. Every couple of minutes a wave washes over them. The strangest sensation that I have experienced on this trip is the ebbing and flowing of my own flesh while trying to remain still in bed. Gravity, centrifugal and centripetal forces work on all objects not attached firmly to the ship. Sometimes the wave action is enough to pull and push me up and down the sheets; other times, I stay put, but the forces attempt a massage, pulling the muscle and fat to and fro with each pitch and roll. As we rise over a swell and crash down into the trough, a loud bang makes me think that we must have hit something solid, but in fact it’s just the cold hard water of the Drake Passage. Keeping my eyes closed or covered is a must; the sway of the curtains is enough to make me queasy. The doctor has given me some new drugs, but I still haven’t found the right elixir for me. At 8 p.m., I asked for something to put me to sleep, which she did. I had a good night’s sleep.

Antarctica Tour: Baily Head, Deception Is. and Hannah Pt.

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

22 January 2012

Jim’s View: Wow, it was hard to believe that this was our last day in Antarctica! We had plans to use every available minute. News was good for the morning – not much of a swell and light wind so the intended landing at the most difficult beach on the itinerary was on. 

We have a love/hate relationship with Baily Head. We love it for the 100,000s Chinstrap Penguins which call the area home and we hate it because of the large swells that make landings at times difficult. We were relieved to land the staff without incident and then, one by one, all the clients with relative ease. A few got wet but that’s to be expected at this location. 


The opportunity to see and photograph this spectacular assemblage of Chinstrap Penguins is the payoff for the often challenging landing at Baily Head. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

What awaited all was a beach oozing with Chinstrap Penguins, made even more striking by the volcanic black sand beach. At any given time, 5,000+ Chinstraps were on the beach – either preparing for entry into the water or gearing up for the long walk to their inland nest. They are such beautiful birds and all seemed to have particular purpose to their march which gave them a businesslike look. Such an incredible experience to see such biomass–another highlight on a trip which offers never-ending highlights! 


A Sheathbill won't win any beauty contests, but we couldn't resist the chance for pictures. This species plays an important role in removing debris from colonies. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Photographers were also snapping photos of nesting Sheathbills near the landing site. Since the wind had picked up and a low cloud bank had settled over the upper terrain, plans to hike from Bailey Head to Whaler’s Bay were scratched. Three hours later, we were making plans for our return to the ship. Marlene Planck briefed folks on proper Zodiac quick entry methods and it thankfully went off without a hitch.  

We pulled anchor and headed around the head and past Neptune’s Window with its nesting Pintado Petrels and through Neptune’s Bellows to Whaler’s Bay and our appointment with craziness. Those that wanted a challenge donned their swimming attire and full Antarctic gear and went ashore for a brief but soul-satisfying swim in the caldera warmed waters interspersed with cold dips in the Antarctic water. For some reason, the voice inside of me telling me not to do was falling on deaf ears. I ended up going into the cold water three times– perhaps trying to freeze my cold. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it but returned to the ship with cold symptoms intact. 

We left the bay and headed north for our final landing of this fantastic voyage–Hannah Point with its Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Southern Giant Petrels and wallowing Elephant Seals. The weather held for us and we managed to successfully complete our visit to Hannah Point. A brilliant place for a last landing since Hannah Point holds a little of everything that makes Antarctica special and it has one penguin behavior that all were pleased to see – chick chases. Seemingly everywhere there were full sized downy Gentoo Penguin chicks chasing adults for food – such a charming and funny thing to see. You’d have to be a rock not to enjoy to it. Chick chases result in more exercise for the chicks and recognition by the adult that it is feeding its own chick. 

This landing provided a last chance to revisit  Chinstrap Penguins. The smaller colonies here are much easier to digest visually. Southern Giant Petrels were nesting on the ridges although it was difficult to catch glimpses of their snow white downy young. Unfortunately, the nesting site where we usually study them at leisure had been adversely affected by previous visitors. 


Fortunately, this photo doesn't convey the odor of shedding Elephant Seals. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Lastly, wallowing Elephant Seals left us with a lasting impression of Antarctica–a solid aroma of shedding seal that has to be experienced to be believed. The last call for Zodiacs back to the ship was made and we bade a fond farewell to this land of penguins, ice, whales, and scenic landscapes that stretch from horizon to horizon. We charted a northbound course to the infamous Drake Passage–famous for its tumultuous seas.

Ann's View: The schedule was fluid today, with many changes as the trip progressed. The original plan was to spend the morning at Baily Head on Deception Island, with a group making a three-hour hike across to Whaler’s Cove on the inside of this active volcano caldera. Others could take the ship through Neptune’s Bellows into the crater. A swim was planned for those brave (or foolish) enough to do so, and a historical visit to the buildings on shore was available as well. 


Iron colors the entrance of "Neptune’s Bellows"—giving the volcanic caldera on Deception Island a rusty red hue.

However, at breakfast we were told that the hike, swimming , and landing inside the caldera were cancelled. Instead, everyone who wanted to go ashore one last time could do so at Hannah Point, the only spot on this trip where we could see the entire complement of flowering plants in Antarctica: a grass and Pearly Wort. A small mutiny was mounted, and soon the plans for a short stop for a swim was reinstated. 

The Baily Head landing was described as our most difficult, and not suitable for less agile passengers. Although the seas appeared relatively calm, the beach is bashed by the surf, which we would ride ashore. Smoothed pebbles of volcanic origin make up the beach, so footing—especially in the water—can be tricky. I heard that only a couple of people actually fell and got soaked this year. At this site, we saw something we haven’t seen for a long time: a green hillside! 

Once ashore, the risk was clearly worth it! We were on the edge of a penguin superhighway, with hundreds of Chinstrap Penguins making their way to and from colonies near and far. The hilltops of Baily Head, some which appeared to be at least a couple of miles away, each held a Chinstrap colony. What a lot of work to get to and from the nests and chicks! This site holds at least 100,000 pairs of Chinstraps, most with one or two chicks. 


Chinstrap Penguin family with two chicks. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker). 

The geology of the area tells of the volcanic history; layers of ash are trapped in the glaciers, and the rocky cliffs show the signs of great upheaval. Boulders litter the edges of the cliffs, making me feel a little nervous about the potential for earthquakes, especially since a 6.7 hit nearby while we’ve been on this expedition.  I climbed a steep bank to get a view from above one of the colonies, and found a single empty nest at the top. It was a great vantage point for a few pictures. When I turned around after a few minutes, though, there was a penguin coming up the path. I scrambled a little higher, and it walked right past me and settled into the nest. 

Since most of the chicks in this colony were almost grown, I suspect she may have lost hers to the ever present skuas or perhaps an accidental fall, but she still was defending the territory. A second penguin came up the slope to the nest. The two had “words”, and the new penguin turned around and left.  On returning to the beach, I was lucky enough to see two Sheathbill nests among the boulders. With no trees around, twigs are not easy to find, so birds who like to have twigs in their nests resort to using bones or feather quills. It makes for a creepy kind of nest for a bird with a creepy kind of face.  

The scenery on the way into the caldera was volcanically rugged. Steep cliffs showing the rust color of iron ore rose above us. Inside, we could see steam rising from some of the beaches. At Whalers’ Cove, some 27 of us chose to take the plunge, while a few wannabes came ashore to document the event. The first thing I noticed as we got ashore was the pungent odor of sulphur. Of course, this made sense, but I hadn’t considered it. 


Here's Jim perched atop the caldera at Deception Island during a previous tour. (Photo supplied by Jim Danzenbaker)

I had been told various stories about swimming here. First, was that the water was warm. Second, was that it was 0 C. But I was committed to doing it, so I was going in. The surprise was that Jim arrived ready to swim, too! He’d told me that he’d been there, done that, so didn’t need to do it again. Apparently, he’d had a change of heart. As we headed in, the water near the shore was definitely warm, but out about 10 feet, it dropped off sharply—both in temperature and in attitude. Ready or not, I was swimming! Thankfully, though, we could get back to the shore and wallow, like multi-colored Elephant Seals, in the heated sand and surf at the edge of Whalers’ Cove. 


Shoreline steam and remains of settlement buildings mark the spot chosen for the Cheeseman’s Ecology Safari 2012 Polar Plunge. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Lured by promises of chocolate, we headed back to the ship and on to our final landing. Hannah Point, on Livingston Island, offer the greatest biodiversity of any of our landing sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. Colonies of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins exist side by side with Elephant Seal wallows, while above us Southern Giant Petrels and Sheathbills have their nests. The Gentoo chicks here are the largest and most advanced of those we’ve seen. We were greatly entertained watching them down the adults returning from the sea with food. Think about penguins running and tumbling through the colonies. It has comedy written all over it. 


Although penguins were not hunted for economic reasons, their guano was mined for fertilizer. This Chinstrap colony at Hannah Point gives an indication of just how abundant the guano is.

At this point, I’d like to share a dirty little secret about penguins with you. Don't be misled the wonderful photographs you’ve seen of pristine parents with downy chicks. Those are the exceptions, not the rule. Penguin colonies are filled with guano covered adults and chicks. 

The birds have about a three to five foot range when they “go”, and with tens of thousands in one place, there’s a whole lot of “going”. The ground looks like a tapestry of poo. I think the Treaty rule of remaining at least five meters from the wildlife is to protect us and our gear as much as it is to protect the wildlife. 

The three hours onshore passed very quickly, and you could tell that the passengers were reluctant to call an end to this journey. Almost everyone showed up on time for the “last” Zodiac back to the ship. Once we were all onboard the Ortelius the anchor was raised and our travel past the South Shetland Island and out into the Drake Passage got underway. 

Antarctica Tour: Cierva Cove

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

21 January 2012


Black ice rare and formed under extreme pressure, which squeezes out all the air bubbles, which refract light and make most ice look white or blue. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim’s View: Cierva Cove looked much better this morning than it did several mornings before–calm water with no swell which was perfect for cruising and several Humpback Whales in the area! After breakfast, we launched Zodiacs, I picked up my group and we headed to the ice. Glorious ice formations awaited us in all directions–a paradise that kept us heading for more. 

Based on the clicking of cameras, it was a huge hit and I personally enjoyed exploring the incredible display. One large iceberg had a small calving. Thankfully, we were at the proper distance and we rode out the small wave–a mini tsunami. It was a pleasant reminder that even a peaceful landscape can instantly turn violent. 

We cruised by a few loafing Leopard Seals but folks have seemingly had their fill of those already. A return for lunch allowed for camera batteries to be recharged and cards to be downloaded before heading out again for the afternoon. We set our towards several Humpbacks that had been spotted inside the neighboring bay and we were soon rewarded with close views of two whales feeding. They paid no attention to us and fluke photos were common. 


A South Polar Skua defends its patch of ice against another bird, apparently nonchalant about the Leopard Seal behind them. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Next, we were off to the island at the head of Cierva Cove which features a colony of Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins. We watched them battle the surf on the their way into and out of the water. Well-worn penguin trails mark the way to their island top nests. Even though we've seen over one million penguins on this trip, more penguins they continue capture most of the group's attention. 

Afterwards, we returned to the ice and a Zodiac rendezvous with Ted Cheeseman and Lynne Hoole, who awaited with some afternoon cookies and spiked hot chocolate –could life be any better? We headed back at around 5 p.m. – a little cold, but glad for this opportunity to enjoy the peninsula for one more day. Dinner and a relaying of the day’s experiences followed. Having developed a cold, I was asleep within two seconds after hitting the pillow. 

Ann's View: We’d passed by Cierva Cove on our way south, missing a planned Zodiac cruise due to the rough weather. It turned out to be an excellent decision, as when we arrived today the seas were calm. Eventually, the skies even showed a bit of blue. This “landing” didn’t involve landing at all, but rather spending the morning cruising through the ice to photograph icebergs and whatever wildlife we came across. 

There is an island with a large Chinstrap Penguin colony, but it is out of bounds and didn’t appear to have a landing spot for anything larger than a penguin anyway. We left the ship in clear water, but before long, we were grinding our way through brash ice in search of the most photogenic bergs. A Leopard Seal or two caused some distraction, but when they refused to give us a toothy yawn, we moved back to our ice expedition. 

The size of some of these icebergs is shocking. Some are larger than the islands in the bay. Most show the scars of collisions with other bergs or land, and several had the telltale marks of having flipped at least a few times. We were photographing a particularly sculptured large berg when all of a sudden the left end of it started to break away. Thankfully, we were far enough back to be safe, but close enough to have a cool view of a baby berg breaking away from the mother ship. The rule of thumb for approaching glaciers and large bergs is to be three times the height away from the ice. It’s a good rule!  


WOW! A Humpback Whale surfacing a few from the Zodiacs was a dream photo opportunity. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)


All too often this was all we could photograph when the Humpback Whales surfaced. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

It was back to the ship for lunch. After the great morning we had, we decided to do it all again! A whale had been spotted from the ship, so we headed in that direction and were quickly rewarded for our efforts. Two Humpback Whales surfaced about 20 feet from the Zodiacs, so stealthily that most of us were not able to focus our cameras for shots. As they moved around the boats, it was a guessing game as to where they’d come up next. They moved on after a few minutes, but another appeared a short distance away. For the next half hour or so, we’d move the boats, sometimes in the right direction, other times the completely wrong way. While I got great shots of whale habitat (the ocean) and a few back and fluke shots, I eventually put the camera away and just enjoyed the experience. 


The constant comings and goings of penguins leave well-marked paths on the landscape. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Next we approached the island with the Chinstrap colony. The penguins resembled streams of ants as they moved up and down the green and pink snow. While the Antarctic has lots of white snow, the telltale sign of a penguin colony is the discoloration caused by thousands of little feet tracking algae and guano along their paths. I also learned that getting good shots of the penguins porpoising through the water takes more luck and skill than I possess. After several more hours in the ice, we were definitely getting a little chilled. And then the rescue Zodiac arrived! The expedition leader, Ted Cheeseman and ship’s doctor, Lynne Hoole, arrived with cookies and hot chocolate-spiked with Tia Maria for those who wanted a little extra warmth. By the time we returned to the ship, we’d spent about seven hours at this “landing” site, another amazing day in the southern ocean.