The Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) is a smallish member of the same genus as the familiar Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) that is so common in many habitats across the continent. Lincoln’s Sparrows have nearly as broad a distribution as Song Sparrows, with the exception of some southeastern states like Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, but they are much more highly migratory, breeding in the far north of Canada and in the upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada ranges. Thus, Lincoln’s Sparrows are absent from much of their listed range except as passage migrants. Here in southern California, we see these beautiful little sparrows primarily in winter, though Lincoln’s Sparrows do breed as nearby as the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The winter range of Lincoln’s Sparrow stretches almost all the way south to Panama. Sometimes you can find upwards of 20-30 Lincoln’s Sparrows in a large, loose winter flock.
Lincoln’s Sparrows are best recognized by their relatively small size, buffy flanks and throat (malar), and the very fine vertical streaking on the flanks and underparts, almost as though meticulously drawn by a fine mechanical pencil. They are a study in subtle beauty, with gray in the side of the face, and a broad gray collar, reminiscent of a Chipping or Clay-colored Sparrow, except that like seemingly every part of Lincoln’s Sparrow, the gray is shot through with very faint streaks. The wings show a distinctly reddish tinge, while many of the broader feathers show prominently dark brown or blackish centers. In certain light, the buffy parts can take on almost a greenish hue. Unlike Song Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows sing a rather long, drawn-out, complex song that is quite bright and beautiful. Song Sparrow may have gotten the name, but I think Lincoln’s Sparrow has a lot more “game” in this regard!
I have Lincoln’s Sparrow in mind because we found several of them last weekend at a local birding hotspot here, Harriet Weider Regional Park. We were lured there by reports of a Clay-colored Sparrow and a Green-tailed Towhee, a among other things. Amongst them were at least three individual Lincoln’s Sparrows, looking diminutive next to their larger cousins. We saw almost everything reported, including White-crowned, Golden-crowned and Song Sparrows, both Sooty and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows, Spotted, California Towhees and Green-tailed Towhees and Oregon Juncos – a veritable sparrow smorgasbord! Later that morning, we stopped by San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, we happened across a Savannah Sparrow and a Vesper Sparrow, to complete a big sparrow day!
In this photo, you can see the reddish crown streaking, and how in some individuals, the upper breast streaking can coalesce into a “stickpin” marking, similar to that seen on Song Sparrows. Not all Lincoln’s Sparrows show this mark, however.