Migrants to coastal Central California
a web page by Don Roberson

Here is a map of the currently accepted Song Sparrow subspecies from Patten & Pruett (2009) [excluding Mexican races and maxima of the western Aleutians].

Most coastal subspecies, and in California even those away from the coast, are primarily non-migratory. But populations from the cold northern interior are migratory — some more than others — and could be the source of 'odd' Song Sparrows found in coastal central California.



26 Nov 2005 west of Vancouver, Washington © Dennis Paulson

23 Mar 2011 Juanita Bay Park, King Co., Washington © Netta Smith

18 Dec 2011 Port Townsend, Washington © Dennis Paulson

Subspecies morphna of the coastal Pacific Northwest is a dark rusty Song Sparrow with grayish underparts and broad blurry rusty streaking to back and underparts. The wings and tail are very rusty, and the facial pattern is gray with rusty stripes (including the malar). As the underpart streaks are not crisp and the background color is grayish, the entire bird looks dark, richly rusty, and blurry. The subspecies is mostly resident; three photos from within its usual range are shown above.

Some portion of the population moves south in winter (perhaps the northernmost birds?) into northern coastal California. These migrants occur in very small numbers south to the S.F. Bay area and to Monterey Bay. The photos below illustrate individuals in winter in Contra Costa and Santa Cruz Co. There is a specimen labeled morphna, taken 15 Mar 1920 Carmel (#CAS).

31 Dec 2012 Lafayette, Contra Costa Co. © John Asher
6 Jan 2011 Henry Cowell Redwood SP, Santa Cruz Co. ©Alex Rinkert

1 Apr 2011 west of Othello, Grant Co., Washington (southwest of Spokane) © Dennis Paulson

29 May 2009 south of Republic, Ferry Co., Washington (~40 mi S of the Canadian border) © Dennis Paulson

Subspecies merrilli breeds in the inter-mountain valleys of British Columbia south to eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Arcese et al. (2002) describe it as "similar to morphna but paler, grayer, with more well-defined, contrasting streaks." Patten & Pruett (2009) call it "intermediate between morphna and montana." The two photos above are from different parts of its range in eastern Washington, and there are obvious differences between them, with the upper bird more like morphna but having decidedly crisper and darker brown streaks below, while the second bird is much whiter below than morphna, and more like montana in that character.

It is partly migratory, with birds reaching southern California. It may be more migratory and more common in California in winter than previously thought, with a good number of specimens both coastal and inland throughout northern California (P. Pyle, pers. com.). The photos below, likely of the same individual at Carmel R. mouth, were tentatively identified as merrilli by Michael Patten and Peter Pyle. If so, it would seem to be from the more eastern part of the range — more like montana than morphna — because the underparts of white and the streaking (above and below) more blackish, but still more heavily streaked below than montana. Alternatively, it could be an example of something from an intergrade zone, such as between a 'fisherella'-type montana [more on that below] and northernmost heermanni. Whatever its origins may be, it a migrant to coastal MTY from some breeding population far north of here.


10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson

10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson

1Aug 2009 Madison River, Montana (just west of Yellowstone NP; adult carrying food to nest) © Tom Grey

29 May 2010 Malheur NWR, Malheur Co., Oregon © Netta Smith

21 Apr 2012 Camas NWR, Jefferson Co., Idaho © Netta Smith

Subspecies montana breeds in the Great Basin region from east Oregon and northeast California across to west Montana, and south into northeast Arizona, northern New Mexico. The 'classic' montana Song Sparrow is pale gray and red, white below, with chestnut malar and restricted red streaking below. Examples are the Montana and Idaho birds above. The old race 'fisherella' was merged into montana (Patten & Pruett 2009) but a bird from that population is shown just above, from Malheur NWR, eastern Oregon. Note that its combination of pale gray above, white below, with some chestnut in malar and in flank streaks, but also blackish streaking on the breast and back.

I've colored the northern part of the range of montana on the map (right), because those populations are migratory south to eastern California and north-central Mexico, and placed a green arrow to the range of old fisherella (basically eastern Oregon/northeastern California). There is a specimen labeled montana from San Lucas, Monterey Co., 19 Nov 1918 (#MVZ). Peter Pyle recently looked at the specimen and thought it could be merrilli or possibly a fisherella-type example of montana. This winter a bird at Carmel R. mouth 9-10 Feb 2013, was pale gray above and white below, with reduced breast streaking (below, both photos). Michael Patten thought it was montana, and Pyle agreed it could be an example of 'fisherella', more like the Malheur bird (above) than the 'classic' red and gray montana. Although the malar and breast streaking look blackish in one shot (below left), another shows some chestnut in the malar (below right). Pyle thought it most closely matched specimens taken in far north-central California.

10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson

10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson

July 2005 Whitby, Ontario, Canada from Wikimedia Commons

4 June 2006 Hammonasset SB, Connecticut © Tom Grey

Subspecies melodia is the 'eastern' Song Sparrow, but like many 'eastern' warblers, it ranges well west in Canada to Alberta and could occur in California as a vagrant. It is a pale brown and white sparrow with chestnut streaking above and below (much reduced streaking below compared to most CA subspecies), and generally recalls a dull version of montana. The upperparts are medium-brown, edged buff (rather than gray, per Patten & Pruett 2009, but note a gray nape). To my eye these two photos from its summer breeding grounds (Ontario, Connecticut) show much less red in the wings and tail than our western birds, and perhaps it could be identified on the comparatively plainness of plumage (no doubt photo confirmation would be necessary).

Like many 'eastern' warblers, its normal migration route is towards the southeast, and sparrows from this nominate population winter in the southeastern U.S. from Texas to Florida. However, like 'eastern' warblers, fall vagrants could fly a 'mirror-image' of their route, head SW instead of SE, and end up in California. There are as yet no records for the Monterey Bay region, but I understand that vagrants have reached California, so the possibility should be on our radar.


Photos: All photos on this page © Don Roberson, except those credited to Tom Grey, Dennis Paulson, or Netta Smith, and used with permission, all rights reserved.

Acknowledgments: I thank Michael A. Patten and Peter Pyle for in-depth email discussions of geographic variation in Song Sparrows (with photo examples); Tom Grey, Dennis Paulson, and Netta Smith for providing many photographs to review; and John Asher and Alex Rinkert provided photos of morphna in CA (a few other photos were found on-line in the public domain). Rita Carratello, Tom Grey, Marshall Iliff, Dennis Paulson, Alex Rinkert, and Dan Singer also contributed to the discussions that brought this revised page together.

Literature cited:

Arcese, P., M.K. Sogge, A.B. Marr, and M.A. Patten. 2002. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in The Birds of North America, No. 704 (A. Poole & F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Grinnell, J., and W.A. Miller. 1944. Distribution of the Birds of California. Pac. Coast Avifauna 27. Cooper Ornith. Soc.

Patten M.A. 2001. The roles of habitat and signaling in speciation: evidence from a contact zone of two Song Sparrow subspecies. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. Calif., Riverside.

Patten, M.A. 2010. Evolution and historical biogeography of a Song Sparrow ring in western North America, pp. 329-342 in Evolutionary Biology – Concepts, Molecular and Morphological Evolution, Chapter 20 (P. Pontarotit, ed.). Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Patten, M.A., and Pruett, C.L. 2009. The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, as a ring species: patterns of geographic variation, a revision of subspecies, and implications for speciation. Systematics and Biodiversity 7: 33-62.

Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds, 2d ed. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

  page created 5-10 March 2013  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved