migrant Puget Sound & Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows
Zonotrichia leucophrys pugetensis & Z. l. gambelii
a web page by Don Roberson

Puget Sound and Gambel's White-crowneds are widespread migrant and wintering birds in coastal central California. With good views or photos, and an understanding on how to identify our resident Nuttall's White-crowned, a good many of the adults can be identified in the field. As both Puget Sound and Gambel's are migratory, they have longer wings than Nuttall's, and thus show a longer primary projection.


This classic pugetensis has these characters:

  • yellow bill
  • paler gray neck/breast contrasts with brownish flanks
  • contrasty back pattern of blackish centers and tan edges
  • dull rusty-brown edges to inner greater coverts & tertials
  • long primary projection

Photo 26 Mar 2010 Carmel Valley
© Brian L. Sullivan

This classic gambelii has these characters:

  • orange bill
  • darker pure gray neck & breast with brownish flanks
  • contrasty back pattern of deep reddish centers and pale gray edges
  • rich chestnut edges to inner greater coverts & tertials
  • long primary projection

Photo 11 Apr 2009 Pixley NWR, Tulare County © D. Roberson

Both adults have black-and-white crown stripes; there is almost never any brownish in the black stripes as is common in first-summer Nuttall's (Pyle 1997; a few pugetensis in their first-summer may have a little brown at the nape) Both adults in these photos lack a malar stripe. Some pugetensis adults may have a malar stripe, but it is quite rare for an adult gambelii to have that character.

The above two photos were both taken in early spring. Let's compare these two subspecies in the fall (below).

This pugetensis has these characters:

  • yellow bill; note also that it has a dark culmen
  • gray neck with some brown intermixed
  • contrasty back pattern of blackish centers and tan edges
  • dull rusty-brown edges to tertials
  • long primary projection

Photo 13 Nov 2004 Petaluma, Sonoma County © Tom Grey

This gambelii has these characters:

  • dull orangey bill
  • pure gray underparts
  • darker gray neck/breast contrasts less with brown-gray flanks
  • contrasty back pattern of dark reddish centers and pale gray edges
  • rich chestnut edges to inner greater coverts & tertials
  • long primary projection

Photo 21 Nov 2009 Waverly Road, Merced County © Brian L. Sullivan

There is not a whole lot of difference between spring and fall, except that perhaps the bills average brighter in spring. Back pattern and the color of the inner greater coverts seems to work equally well in either season, as does the general tone of the gray underparts. Bill color, though, can be problematic. While pugetensis tends to look "yellow" and gambelii tends to look orange, there are some birds that seem intermediate. The following gallery compares bill color in spring, when color tone is the brightest.

3 Mar 2007 Mountain View © Tom Grey

28 Feb 2007 Stanford © Tom Grey

13 Mar 2010 Carmel Valley © D. Roberson

5 Apr 2009 Los Banos © B.L. Sullivan

4 Apr 2010 Carmel Valley © B.L. Sullivan

11 Apr 2009 Tulare Co. © D. Roberson

10 Mar 2009 Mountain View © Tom Grey

7 Apr 2010 Moonglow Dairy © D. Roberson

The top row above shows all pugetensis; the second row shows all gambelii. There is some within subspecies variation, but I think it is apparent that the top row (Puget Sound) is a yellow color, with some orange overtones (especially in early morning light, as to top right bird), while the bottom row (Gambel's) are an orange color, with some pink overtones, and especially on the upper mandible. Further, note that most pugetensis show a fair bit of dark on the culmen, while most gambelii had just a small dark tip. Yet there are exceptions in all cases.

Back color and the overall tone of gray on the underparts, though, really help separate these subspecies:

When this White-crowned appeared in my Pacific Grove yard 2 Apr 2010, it was rather readily apparent it was Gambel's, not only by the orange bill, but by the back patter: deep red centers contrasting with pale gray edges. Further the inner greater coverts and tertial were edge rich chestnut, the primaries were long, and the breast was a pure gray (© D. Roberson).

This one has long primaries, so must be pugetensis or gambelii. The tertials edges look richly colored, but that could be due to low sun angle. The back pattern has black centers and tan edges, pretty much ruling out gambelii, and leaving this as pugetensis. The bill color looks intermediate yellow-orange but the extent of dark on the culmen is consistent with pugetensis. The extensively brown flanks, contrasting with a pale gray neck, and the presence of a little malar stripe are also consistent with pugetensis.

This bird was at Palo Alto, Santa Clara Co., on 13 Oct 2007 © Tom Grey

Distribution and timing can be of some help. In migration, mostly late September through October in the fall, and March-April in spring, either of these subspecies can occur anywhere. In the fall, both subspecies begin to arrive about mid-September in MTY, so there is little different in timing. In the spring, however, wintering Puget Sound begin departing by late February and many have left by mid-March, while the bulk of Gambel's migration is later, during April and sometimes into May.

In winter, however, it is fair to say that Puget Sound White-crowns primarily winter near the coast, while Gambel's winters primarily inland. In the San Francisco Bay area, where White-crowned Sparrow is abundant in winter, only 1% of the flocks were gambelii. The rest were pugetensis (Baptista et al. 1997), except for the narrow zone where resident nuttalli occur. There can be mixed flocks, but my impression is that this is much more common in migration than in winter.

Here in Monterey County, pugetensis are very common as the wintering White-crowns at oft-birded spots such as Moonglow Dairy and Moss Landing (except that nuttalli is the common race along Jetty Road and in the coastal dunes), Salinas River mouth (except for nuttalli in the dunes), Carmel River mouth (except for nuttalli in the coastal scrub by the cross), and Big Sur R. mouth (except for nuttalli in the coastal scrub on the headlands). In contrast, if you bird inland in Monterey County in winter, such as the upper Salinas Valley or east, gambelii is the common wintering White-crowned.

Finally, songs can be helpful with some practice. White-crowns may sing when they arrive in the fall (left; 2 Oct 2005 Mountain View © Tom Grey) or before they depart in the spring (below left; 11 Apr 2009 Tulare Co. © D. Roberson), or even on nice days in mid-winter.

This one (left) is Puget Sound. The song is a lazy, flutey ramble of a single note followed by buzzes and trills. There are actually 7 dialects and two groups (northern & southern; see Baptista 1997, DeWolfe & Baptista 1995) but to my ear it is an unpatterned flutey song, unlike the more-patterned two note plus trill pattern of resident Nuttall's in Monterey. The song of one Oregon birds can be heard here.

This singer (left) is Gambel's. All races can erect and flare their crown stripes when singing, but Gambel's often looks exaggerated. There is significant variation in Gambel's dialects also (Austen & Handford 1991). The one in my yard last week gave a very simple three-note pattern, recalling the first 3 notes in the 5-note pattern we all learned when watching the movie First Encounters of the Third Kind: the first note low, the second note an octave higher, and the third down a half-octave.

But there is a huge number of dialects and variations. One from the Alaksan breeding grounds is here and while quite different from local Nuttall's, might resemble some Puget Sound songs.

  page created 23-25 Apr 2010  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved