Sharp-tailed Sparrows

Pleasure House Point, Norfolk, VA 11/13/14

All photos are Marshall Faintich

Alice and I left Nellysford early in the morning with a forecast for afternoon rain in the Norfolk area. We encountered some brief rain showers on the way, but the rain stopped and there was complete cloud cover by the time I arrived at Pleasure House Point shortly before noon. Hide tide was expected a little before 2 p.m., and Rob Bielawski's reports of the Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows at this location stated that high tide was the best time to see these secretive species because they are forced to seek higher ground.

At 1:47 p.m., the first of a few Sharp-tailed Sparrows popped up onto the marsh grasses, and I started taking photos. By 2:29 p.m., I had had taken about 400 photos of these sparrows. I'm not sure how many different birds I saw, as they would drop down out of sight after just a few moments each time. The most I saw at one time were two sparrows.

These two species used to be considered as one species, but were later split into two with sub-species. After looking at my photos of the sparrows, and consulting multiple references, I am sure that some of them were Nelson's, and one or more of them may be Saltmarsh. However, the references are not completely in agreement, and none of the birds looked exactly like the reference drawings and photos.

I consulted several references. My primary reference is Sparrows of the United States and Canada by Beadle and Rising. I also consulted Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and Sibley's Ipod Application eguide to the Birds of North America. I used other references as well, but both species are new to me, and I would appreciate hearing from others who are more familiar with them. The Sibley's eguide points out that the bills of the Saltmarsh are long, and short on a Nelson's. But Sibley's Field Guide and Beadle/Rising do not agree on bill color for these two species.

Sparrows #1 and #2: I am fairly sure that both of these are Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#1)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#1)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#2)

Sparrow #3: I am fairly sure that this is a Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#3)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#3)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#3)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#3)

Sparrows #4 and #5: I am fairly sure that both of these are Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows (#4 and #5)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#4)

Sparrow #6: This may be a Saltmarsh. The breast coloring is significantly lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#6)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#6)

Sparrow #7: This is most likely a Nelson's. However, there are distinct stripes on the flanks (Saltmarsh?). Also, Beadle and Rising state that the rump feathers of the Saltmarsh are dark brown with darker centers, and Nelson's are brown and unstreaked. The rump feathers on this bird appear to have dark vertical streaks.


Nelson's/Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#7)

Sparrow #8: I am fairly sure that this is a Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#8)

Sparrow #9: This may be the same bird as #6. The breast coloring is significantly lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp. The rump feathers are darker in the center.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#9)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#9)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#9)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#9)

Sparrows #10 and #11: The lower left sparrow (#10) may be a Nelson's. The upper right sparrow (#11) may be a Saltmarsh, as I don't see any breast coloring.


Nelson's (#10) and Saltmarsh(?) (#11) Sharp-tailed Sparrows


Nelson's (#10) Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Saltmarsh(?) (#11) Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Sparrow #12: This may be a Saltmarsh. The breast coloring is lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp. Also, the gray median crown stripe is narrower than on some of the other birds - see for example, the wide and poorly defined crown stripe on #3. Beadle and Rising state that the crown stripe is narrow on the Saltmarsh and broad and poorly defined on the Nelson's.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#12)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#12)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#12)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#12)

Sparrow #13: I am fairly sure that this is a Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#13)

Sparrow #14: I am fairly sure that this is a Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#14)


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#14)

Sparrow #15: I am fairly sure that this is a Nelson's.


Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#15)

Sparrow #16: This may be a Saltmarsh. The breast coloring is lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#16)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#16)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#16)

Sparrow #17: This may be a Saltmarsh. The breast coloring is lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp. The rump feathers are darker in the center. However, the median stripe is not well-defined and somewhat broad, but not as broad and poorly defined as on #3.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#17)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#17)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#17)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#17)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#17)

Sparrow #18: This may be a Saltmarsh. The breast coloring is lighter than the facial coloring, and the breast streaks appear to be sharp. Also, the gray median crown stripe is narrow.


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#18)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#18)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#18)


Saltmarsh(?) Sharp-tailed Sparrow (#18)



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