Tag Archives: birding tips

Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle

Take 5: Sorting Out Sparrows

There are some birds that scream for attention, like Northern Cardinals or (more literally) Blue Jays. Sparrows are not that kind of bird. Sparrows are subtle, nuanced, and notoriously tricky to tell apart from one species to another. Commonly referred to as “Little Brown Jobs” (LBJs for short), sparrows mostly just run around, eat seeds, and try to stay out of trouble.

One useful tip to narrow down your options from the more than two dozen sparrows that can be found in Massachusetts is to pay attention to habitat. Some species are grassland specialists, like the Grasshopper Sparrow or Savannah Sparrow. As their names suggest, Seaside Sparrows and Saltmarsh Sparrows are most often seen at the shore. Swamp Sparrows prefer freshwater marshes, and Field Sparrows like early successional habitat (recently or frequently disturbed areas, like grasslands, pastures, shrubby thickets, and young forests).

Geography and time of year can be useful as well, as there are some species that only breed in Massachusetts in the western counties, such as White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco, but all bets are off during migration when most of these species can be seen almost anywhere.

At that point, your best bet is to narrow down your choices by looking for identifying physical features: Is the breast striped or clear? Is the crown solid or striped? Are there any spots of yellow around the face?

Ask almost any expert for help honing your sparrow identification skills and they’ll likely give you a sympathetic smile and say something encouraging like, “Just keep practicing,” or “Don’t get discouraged.” Sorting out sparrows is, in the end, an exercise in patience and persistence.

If you’d like a leg up on your LBJ-identification training, check out our upcoming online program, Sorting Out Sparrows & Other LBJs. And enjoy these five photos of sparrows from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2021 photo contest closes this Thursday, September 30, so submit your own nature photography today!

Saltmarsh Sparrow © Andy Eckerson
Saltmarsh Sparrow © Andy Eckerson
Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle
Savannah Sparrow © Phil Doyle
Swamp Sparrow © Matt Filosa
Swamp Sparrow © Matt Filosa
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Grasshopper Sparrow © Kevin Bourinot
Grasshopper Sparrow © Kevin Bourinot

Top Wildlife Sanctuaries for Shorebird Migration

Late summer is peak season for watching shorebirds in Massachusetts. While most songbirds are laying low as they wrap up raising their young and molting (i.e. growing new feathers), shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, and godwits are already on the move for the fall.

Mass Audubon protects locally-breeding shorebirds through our Coastal Waterbird Program, but our wildlife sanctuaries also provide habitat for the hungry migrants that pass through en route from their Arctic breeding grounds to points south. Here’s a shortlist of the best Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries to observe them. 

Easy Access: Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport 

Overlooking a vast, tidal mudflat on the Merrimack River, Joppa Flats is a great place to observe shorebirds without having to walk too far from the parking lot (the visitor’s center has a great view of the shorebirds from indoors, although it’s temporarily closed during the pandemic). Joppa Flats also a great jumping-off point for birding Plum Island, another amazing shorebird hotspot just down the road. 

On most days from late July through early October, flocks of common shorebirds like Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the flats. Occasionally, an uncommon visitor shows up, like the lanky and long-billed Hudsonian Godwit—a species that stops over in small numbers in Massachusetts before a direct, marathon flight over the Atlantic to their wintering grounds. 

A Hudsonian Godwit (left) on a Massachusetts mudflat. Photo: Will Freedberg

Wild and Little-Known: Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Rowley 

Just a few miles to the south, this sanctuary includes more land and trails than Joppa Flats as well as several marsh overlooks. Twenty species of shorebird have been recorded here so far, with new species for the site being recorded almost annually. 

Finding shorebirds here takes a little more effort and searching than other sites on this list, but the under-birded marshes and mudflats have so much untapped potential for interesting sightings! At the later end of shorebird migration (particularly in the last week of September), Rough Meadows has proven to attract uncommon upland species like Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover.  

American Golden-Plovers are just as happy in grassy uplands as they are in the water. Photo: Will Freedberg

Shorebird Central: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellfleet 

Wellfleet Bay is the crown jewel of Mass Audubon’s shorebird hotspots and one of our most-visited coastal sanctuaries. There’s a lot to see here, from box turtles and rare coastal heathland plants to expansive marshes and mudflats that seem to stretch past the horizon at low tide.  

Visitors looking for shorebirds can access these flats along the Try Island Trail after stopping at Goose Pond, which has hosted some rare visitors from Western Sandpipers to a Spotted Redshank from Eurasia. Further out, birders on the tidal flats beyond the marsh boardwalk often see Greater Yellowlegs picking crustaceans off the moist ground and Short-billed Dowitchers rapidly dipping their bills in and out of the mud like sewing machines.  

The stars of the show on most days, however, are the Whimbrels. These large and long-billed shorebirds are seen more consistently at Wellfleet Bay than anywhere else in the state, and can be seen daily from mid-July through the fall (though their numbers begin to taper off in September).  

Whimbrels sport an impressive bill for probing in the sand and mud. Photo: William Freedberg

Cape Cod’s Hidden Gem: Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable 

Long Pasture’s secluded beach and marsh boardwalk host at least a handful of migrating shorebirds most days in late summer, especially Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Plovers.  

American Oystercatchers breed nearby and often visit with young, and uncommon Forster’s Terns are often seen resting on sandbars or feeding just offshore.   

A Ruddy Turnstone on a mudflat. Photo: Will Freedberg

Wild Card: Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton 

Coastal Massachusetts doesn’t get to have all the shorebird fun! Most species of shorebirds prefer beaches and salt marshes during migration, but Arcadia in the Connecticut River Valley draws some interesting species as well.  

From July through September, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, and Solitary Sandpipers frequent muddy edges of the sanctuary’s numerous ponds, riverbanks, and oxbows. And in early spring, Wilson’s Snipe are often seen in the wetter parts of the sanctuary’s open meadows.