By Bob Lewis
Two quite rare sparrows have turned up in the Bay Area this winter. Both are birds that breed in northern areas and winter further south. Their normal fall migration generally takes them on a route far from the Bay Area, but these two, probably blown off course by winter storms, are spending their non-breeding season with us.
The Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica), first found by Alan Hopkins, has been coming to an area across the street from the California Academy of Sciences (where we teach our Master Birding class) since Dec. 7. How convenient is that?! A lot of folks have been able to see the bird, including some photographers, so it’s being well documented.
Rustic Bunting breeds in Northern Europe and Asia as far east as Kamchatka and Sakhalin, and normally migrates to Japan and China for the winter. A handful of sightings have been made along the West Coast, with four reported in Rare Birds of California prior to 2006. Because of its large range and population, it is not considered endangered by the IUCN Redlist, although its population is decreasing. Our bird apparently got on the wrong side of the Bering Strait, and then migrated down North America instead of Asia.
LeConte’s Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) was found on the Point Reyes Christmas Count by Wendy Dreskin, and identified by Scott and Ryan Terrill at the count dinner. There are 32 accepted records of this colorful little sparrow in California (as of 2006) but this is a first for the Bay Area. It breeds in Northern British Columbia east to Quebec, and migrates through the center of the US down to the south-east where it winters in Texas, Missouri and Kentucky east to northern Florida. It’s a ground-loving bird, and generally hides in wet grassy areas, where it’s difficult to see. It’s status on the IUCN list is, like the bunting, a bird of Least Concern. It has a large range and significant population, although diminishing.
Our bird apparently got on the wrong side of the Rockies and migrated south, finding familiar habitat in Point Reyes.
The trek is a long one to see this sparrow, to the south side of Abbot’s Lagoon. But usually after a significant wait, birders have been rewarded with fleeting views of the little skulker as it feeds along the edge of wet areas. Occasional jumps to the top of lupine and coyote bush have afforded some striking images for lucky photographers.
If you should go looking for these sparrows, please consider the birds and afford them sufficient space to forage without being disturbed. They may spend the winter, giving others a chance to see an unusual vagrant.
Bob Lewis is a GGAS board member, a birding instructor and field trip leader for about 20 years, and an award-winning bird photographer. He is one of the three instructors for the year-longMaster Birder class sponsored by GGAS and California Academy of Sciences. Bob’s bird photographs can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/boblewis/ and his website, which lists classes and some local birding information, is http://www.wingbeats.org/home.htm .