The day before the Superbowl of Birding, I traveled up to Massachusetts together with Corey, Andrew, and Jacob, the latter a member of a young birders team who needed a ride from New York. We decided to take a detour through Rhode Island to look for a Green-tailed Towhee that had been reported regularly at Sachuest Point NWR. Birders were leaving seed on the ground to keep a mixed flock of sparrows, including the towhee, returning to the same field. The towhee would have been a life bird for both Corey and Andrew; as it turned out, neither of them got it. You can read more about that misadventure in Corey's post.
The trip was not a total loss since a lot of birds were active in the field where the towhee should have been. We enjoyed good looks at a Northern Harrier and a couple Red-tailed Hawks. A Northern Cardinal stood in the snow, and a Carolina Wren flitted around the nearby trees. There were also lots of sparrows, though none of them was the expected towhee.
There were several species present: White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, and American Tree Sparrow made up the majority. There were even a couple Fox Sparrows in the mix. The stars of the sparrow show were "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps).
"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow is one of the many subspecies of Savannah Sparrow. They are larger than typical Savannah Sparrows, but very pale, with fine streaking on their undersides. Their pale plumage often appears almost gray, so that they blend in with the coastal sand dunes where they spend the winter months. This feeding station was the furthest inland I have seen an Ipswich Sparrow, as far as I can remember. In the photo above, two Ipswich Sparrows share space with a normal Savannah Sparrow, while a White-throated Sparrow jumps in the background.
While they get their name from the Massachusetts town where the type specimen was collected, Ipswich Sparrows breed further north. Their breeding range is restricted to Sable Island in Nova Scotia, which they build nests in marram grass and beach peas. Ipswich Sparrows rarely breed on the nearby mainland, and regular Savannah Sparrows rarely breed on Sable Island. They winter along the coast from southeastern Canada, through New England, and into the Mid-Atlantic states. I occasionally see them in New Jersey in winter, at sites such as Barnegat Light and the dune line in Cape May Point.
Beyond being relatively uncommon, Ipswich Sparrows are delightful birds to watch and study. Their presence at Sachuest Point helped relieve the pain of missing the vagrant we hoped to find there.