Cassin's Sparrow, Aimophila cassinii in New York

Circumstances

On Saturday 7th October 2000, Tom Burke and Gail Benson briefly observed a puzzling adult Aimophila sparrow at Field 6, Jones Beach State Park, Nassau County, New York. The bird was seen as it perched on a snow fence marking the western boundary of parking field 6 but quickly vanished into the grass and could not be relocated in spite of careful searching during the afternoon. The features gleaned during less than 2 minutes of observations suggested CASSIN'S SPARROW (Aimophila cassinii), however, this identification remained very tentative.


Figure 1. View of the Cassin's Sparrow as it perched on a goldenrod. Notice the distinctive facial pattern. Video capture copyright © of Seth Ausubel

The next morning (Sunday 8th Oct 2000), Tom Burke refound the bird at the same location and by cell phone was able to make contact with a number of other birders working the barrier beach. Over the next few hours, we were able to get fleeting glimpses of the bird as it darted in and out of cover. In general, the birs seemed extremely reluctant to perch in the open or to willingly leave dense cover. Gradually we were able to put the pieces together, ruling out similar species such as Botteri's Sparrow (A. botterii) and Bachman's Sparrow (A. aestivalis). Although a number of Savannah, Swamp and Song Sparrows were present in the same grass and low scrub, most observers were soon able to pick the bird out in flight by virtue of its distinctive grayish coloration and relatively long, rounded tail. On the ground, the combination of uniform grayish face and distinctive brown crescent marking the rear edge of the ear coverts (see Figs 1 and 2) allowed for quick recognition.

This page presents a series of still images that were captured from short snatches of video taken on Monday 9th October by Seth Ausubel and Sunday 8th October by Angus Wilson. It is hoped that better images will be forth coming!


Figure 2. Another view from the same segment of video. Video capture copyright © of Seth Ausubel

Critical features noted in the field were the brown streaks on the rear flanks; whitish near-complete eye ring; brownish post-ocular stripe and distinct crescent marking the edge of the ear covers; broad grayish supercilium; whitish throat offset by a very narrow malar stripe and (according to Tom Burke) distinct laddering on the uppersurface of the central tail feathers. In flight, the tail appeared longer and broader than on the accompanying Savannah Sparrows. The central tail feathers appeared slightly paler than the rest of the tail. I was unable to detect white tail spots characteristic of fresh plumage.


Figure 3. Slightly closer view of the bird as it perched momentarily in a small tree. Video capture copyright © of Angus Wilson


Figure 4. Adjacent video frame to that shown in Fig. 3. The whitish eye ring and grayish broad supercilium are quite obvious in this view. Also there is some hint of the slanting brown streaks on the rear flank. The crown feathers are raised slightly giving a peaked appearance to the head. Video capture copyright © of Angus Wilson


Figure 5. A more head-on view showing the whitish throat and unmarked gray breast. Video capture copyright © of Angus Wilson

Status of Cassin's Sparrow in northeastern North America

Cassin's sparrows are found predominantly in shortgrass habitat of the central plains, Mexican plateau and Gulf coast of southern Texas. Although Cassin's Sparrow has not been recorded previously in New York, there are a few accepted records from elsewhere in the northeast (Ontario, Nova Scotia, Maine and New Jersey). I would be interested to hear specific details (e.g. dates) for documented occurances in the NE as well as any records that might be under consideration.

Reports Please! An impressive number of birders were able to see (and tick) this sparrow and it will be interesting to see how many 'follow through' by submitting a report to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC). Details of the submission process and mailing address can be found on the NYSARC pages located on the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs web site.

Acknowledgements

Congratulations to Thomas W. Burke on his amazing find. A long-standing member of the New York State Avian Records Committee and cohost of the New York City Rare Bird Alert, Tom has set a great example to us all in following up on the initial tantalizing sighting. This potential first state record seems appropriate reward for the thousands of hours he has spent carefully checking sparrows!! Many thanks also to Seth Ausubel for generously sharing his video grabs and to those who called or emailed with updates on the bird.


An excited crowd discusses the identification! Video capture copyright © of Angus Wilson


Copyright © 2000 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson (e-mail: wilsoa02@med.nyu.edu)
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