Clay-Colored Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow Photo by Alex Forsythe

We all have at least one elusive bird: the bird species that won’t allow us to see it for any length of time. We may hear it, we might see it as it flies away, or it might be the bird that the surrounding birders say “was just here five minutes ago”. The Clay-colored Sparrow was an elusive bird for me.

I have seen Clay-colored Sparrows, especially during the annual Birdathon fundraisers for the Indiana Dunes State Park. Granted, it’s difficult to see anything when you start birding at 2:00 a.m. (Don’t judge – we had to spot as many species as possible by 8:00 p.m. and we wanted to get the nocturnal birds to increase our count!), but we did see Clay-colored Sparrows on the Birdathons. However, they were always too far away for a decent photo. In fact, I have never been able to find a Clay-colored Sparrow willing to hold still long enough and close enough to allow me to take a photo. This year, my luck changed.

A few days ago, a Clay-colored Sparrow decided to drop in and visit our yard. It is an ideal oasis for migrating birds to recharge during their difficult, long journeys. Although we are surrounded by nothing but miles and miles of corn and soybeans, our property has a nice variety of habitats: mature hardwood woodlands, young woodlands, wooded wetlands, tall grasslands, shrubby areas, an orchard, small ponds, and mowed areas. The Clay-colored Sparrow spent most of its time in some young Bald Cypress trees bordering the shrubby area along the mature woodlands; I spent most of my time hiding in a row of pine trees hoping for a photo opportunity. For a brief moment, the bird held still not too far from me, and I got the picture you see here.

You’ll note the similarities between the Clay-colored and the Chipping Sparrow. The differences are subtle: the underside (buff vs. grayish), the bill (shorter vs. longer), white stripe in the center of the crown, and the dark mustache. One surprising note about the Clay-colored Sparrow: it’s not a bird prone to fidelity. The males keep the same territory every year, but the females shop around for new mates and territories each year.

Although it might not be loyal to its mate, I do hope this bird remains loyal to our property. I would love to see it every year and hopefully get even better photos next time!


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