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jeffroscoe

Sagebrush Sparrow???

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Coachella Valley Preserve, Riverside County, CA, January 10.  Thanks.

There are a few more pics if you follow the links.  Can't be certain they are all of the same individual, but all at the same location and around the same time. 

40272182941_ea8c916c97_c.jpguntitled-1098.jpg by jeffroscoe, on Flickr

39374895685_5170f5ee1a_c.jpguntitled-1208.jpg by jeffroscoe, on Flickr

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My best guess is that these are inland Bell's Sparrows. Sibley mentions that they're much paler than the coastal ones, but he doesn't illustrate them. Looking at shots on iNat.org (https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/474849-Artemisiospiza-belli-canescens/browse_photos) the weak streaking on the back and well-defined malar seem to fit better than Sagebrush.

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Older guides list Bell's and Sagebrush as subspecies of Sage Sparrow, but that splits several years old. Sagebrush Sparrows do winter in southern California in small numbers, although that's probably obscured by the ID difficulties.

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Unfortunately, it seems that many of these :"Sage" sparrows cannot be identified in the field.  There basically is a continuum in appearance with a disturbing amount of overlap.  Most people refer to the back pattern and maybe secondarily the malar.  If the bird has really obvious dark, well-defined streaks on the back it is pretty far along the spectrum, and would most likely be a Sagebrush.  If there is essentially no back streaking or extremely weak ill-defined streaks, it is probably a Bell's.  If somewhere in the middle...

I'd say this bird is definitely trending towards canescans Bell's, and given location, that would likely be the more common species.  Is it possible it could be Sagebrush?  Who knows, perhaps, but you'd need it in hand to be sure.  I certainly wouldn't call it a Sagebrush based on the photos.

Here's a nice reference article: http://www.surfbirds.com/Features/Bells_Sparrow/identification.html

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