On 29 Sep 1970, an odd sparrow was studied at Pt. Pinos which looked just like this photo (I've checked the observer's field notes); it was published in American Birds 25: 106 as a representative of "a large and pale interior race of Sage Sparrow." A similar bird appeared near the Big Sur Ornithology Lab at the Big Sur R. mouth on 6 Sep 1993 where it was identified as an "interior" race of Sage Sparrow. Yet a third individual appeared there on 8 Sep 1996 where the intern who found it called it a "Sage Sparrow." Fortunately, that bird remained a month (to 6 Oct 1996, through a post-juvenal molt) and was photographed extensively (such as this fine shot by John Sorensen). I re-indentified the 1993 bird from a photo, and the 1970 bird from the observer's notes 25 years later; Craig Hohenberger correctly identified the bird to the left: in all cases they were juv. Black-throated Sparrows, an exceptionally rare vagrant to Monterey County, and in the case of the 1970 bird, a first county record (only an adult male at a feeder 14-20 May 1972 was correctly identified initially in Monterey). In all cases, observers were misled by the superficial resemblance of young Black-throats to Sage Sparrows and because Black-throated Sparrow -- a rare vagrant -- was not considered while the locally-nesting Sage Sparrow was considered. In all cases, the long white supercilium -- broader and brighter behind the eye than in front of it -- is a key mark to the correct identification. Note the light streaks across the breast on this bird, characteristic of juvenal plumage (and lost on this individual after the post-juvenal molt).
Real Sage Sparrows are shown below: the pale race canescens on the left (nests in San Joaquin Valley and southeastern deserts of California) and our local race belli ("Bell's Sparrow) on the right. It is possible that these taxa will be split into separate species in the future. Note the darker gray head and more contrasting brown back of "Bell's Sparrow." It is actually the xeric-breeding canescens Sage Sparrows that approach the color tone of Black-throated Sparrow. In any taxa of Sage Sparrow, note that white spot above the lores is much brighter than any obscure supericiliary line, the opposite pattern of Black-throated Sparrow.
PHOTOS: The juv. Black-throated Sparrow was photographed by John Sorensen at the Big Sur R. mouth, Monterey Co., in Sep 1996; the canescens Sage Sparrow was photographed by J. Van Remsen, Jr., at Ft. Piute, San Bernardino Co., in Feb 1976; and the belli Sage Sparrow was taken at Toro Regional Park, Monterey Co., in June 1981. Photos are © John Sorensen, J. Van Remsen, Jr., and D. Roberson, respectively.
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