Connecticut Audbon Society

Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder for Friday, December 13: Ipswich Savannah Sparrow

Savie cropped

Savannah Sparrow. Note the bolder coloration compared to the Ipswich Savannah Sparrow below.

Where to find it: An Ipswich Sparrow has appeared at our Stratford Point Coastal Grassland Conservation Area this winter.  It has been seen a handful of times on the outer bluffside trail, and is typically spotted by walking the trail until you note a very pale colored sparrow that may pop up onto one of the bluff boulders. We expect one or more individuals to remain with us at Stratford Point throughout the winter.

A subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis sandwichensis), Ipswich Sparrows breed on Sable Island off the Atlantic maritime coast of Canada, and therefore are severely range-restricted as a breeding subspecies. Their winter range extends much wider – from central Nova Scotia south to northeastern Florida – but is still limited to coastal habitats.  

Ipswich Savannah Sparrow - Andrew GriswoldWhat it looks like: The Ipswich Sparrow has similar size, shape and actions as the Savannah Sparrow, but is noticeably lighter colored — so much so, that when they are found with a flock of Savannah Sparrows, they stand out at a distance.  Compare the two photographs on this page. One is of a Savannah Sparrow perched atop a snow fence (top). Note the bold breast pattern with a dark center breast spot and a yellowish wash in the eyebrow (supercillium).

Now look at the bird in the second photo, right. This bird is an Ipswich Savannah Sparrow. But note how the streaking is a lot less bold and its plumage is much paler overall. There are a number of subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow but not all have likely been studied in-depth. There is much variation in the plumage coloration of this species across its breeding range. Yet the completely washed out plumage coloration approaching the color of light beach sand is typically indicative of Ipswich Sparrows.   

How to find it: The Stratford Point Coastal Grassland Conservation Area (1207 Prospect Drive, Stratford) and the Milford Point Coastal Center (1 Milford Point Road, Milford) are good places to look for this rare winter visitor.  The bird is best searched for along habitat margins such as between the grassland edge and the bluff at Stratford Point or along the margin of beach grass and the open sandy beach at Milford Point.   

What if the bird isn’t there: The beach areas at the two Connecticut Audubon Society facilities are among the best birding locales in Connecticut to find this bird. At Stratford Point, visitors are welcome on the property when CAS staff are there and the gate is open. Someone is usually on site each day during the week unless we are busy with field work but the site is typically not open on weekends. If the bird is at neither location, you could also try looking for it along the margins of the beach and dune at the town of Stratford’s Long Beach at the end of Oak Bluff Avenue.

At this time of year at Milford Point, birders are welcome on both the beach and sandbar on Long Island Sound, and on Smith Point, which extends west along the beach, toward the Housatonic River. The views and the birding are excellent. Follow the signs and please stay off private property. Also note that parts of the McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, on Smith’s Point, are closed.

Conservation status: Breeding populations of Savannah Sparrow and wintering populations of Ipswich Sparrows are listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut.  This designation means that the species is recognized as having a naturally restricted range or habitat in the state or has a low population level.

Note on a Bird that has Flown: As birders throughout the northeast are aware, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher settled in at the Hadlyme Ferry terminal in Lyme recently, and stayed awhile. Yesterday we prepared a Bird Finder entry about the flycatcher and decided to hold off on posting this Ipswich Sparrow entry. As luck would have it, the flycatcher was nowhere to be found today, so we went back to Plan A. If it returns tomorrow or anytime soon, we will publish the Fork-Tailed Flycatcher Bird Finder entry and let you know.Or to see Fork-tailed Flycatchers in their regular habitat, join our EcoTravel trip to Costa Rica.

This week’s Connecticut Audubon Bird Finder was contributed by Anthony Zemba, director of Connecticut Audubon Society’s Conservation Services Department. CAS Conservation Services is an ecological consultancy specializing in flora and fauna surveys, habitat assessments, and a variety of natural resource management and planning services,


Savannah Sparrow on snow fencing at the Stratford Point Coastal Grassland Conservation Area, by Anthony Zemba/Connecticut Audubon Society

Savannah Sparrow exhibiting the much paler coloration of the Ipswich subspecies, by Andrew Griswold.

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