SIB “Birds of the Week” – Marsh Sparrows (Seaside, Saltmarsh & Nelson’s)

Seaside Sparrow – Ammodramus maritimus – L: 6″ WS: 7.5″ Wt: 0.81oz
Saltmarsh Sparrow – Ammodramus caudacutus – L: 5.25″ WS: 7″ Wt: 0.67oz
Nelson’s Sparrow – Ammodramus nelsoni – L: 5″ WS: 7″ Wt: 0.6oz

When I sat down to write this article, I began to think “why did I choose to write about these birds???” They are elusive, secretive, up/down, now you see ’em, now you don’t! It took me 6 years, living at Seabrook, until I knew about them and then another year to actually find them! Having said that, they are beautiful and important birds in our salt marshes, where all of them winter.

Three birds make up the marsh sparrows…the Seaside Sparrow, the Saltmarsh Sparrow and the Nelson’s Sparrow. They all belong to the genus Ammodramus, in the group known as American grassland sparrows. Ammodramus is from the Latin for “sand runner.” All have songs and calls that sound like you dialed a fax number, pretty much (Seaside, Saltmarsh, Nelson’s). Strange and grating…lol! All of them have low, direct flight, are secretive and go quickly down into the grasses. And most of their feeding is done running on the sand! They are all about 5″ in length.

I asked Aaron Given, wildlife biologist at Kiawah who bands these sparrows every winter/spring, to give me a few of his thoughts on why he bands these birds and this is what he wrote back:  “Three species of coastal “marsh” sparrows winter in the salt marshes of Kiawah Island (and Seabrook): Seaside Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Saltmarsh Sparrow.  This group is considered species of high conservation concern due to their specialization of habitat that is considered spatially restricted.  It appears that this group may be particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and loss of saltmarsh habitat along their wintering grounds along the southeast United States.  The objectives of the study is to determine habitat requirements, site fidelity, relative abundance, and distribution of the species and subspecies.” And a light bulb went off in my head… “species of high conservation” in danger of losing it’s habitat. That’s why these little guys are important at Seabrook! (If you are interested to assist in banding these birds, click here to learn more!)

The Seaside Sparrow is probably the most common of these sparrows.  It is a stocky,  short-tailed, large-billed sparrow with dark gray overall, a white throat and blurry gray streaks below. It has yellow lores (area between the base of the beak and the eye) on it’s face that are very distinctive. They like to run along the sand at the edge of the marsh grass to feed, like little mice.

The Saltmarsh Sparrow is solitary and secretive, but if you are lucky enough to see one, it’s a real treat. The Saltmarsh has an orange triangle on it’s face, a gray crown and dark streaks on the sides of it’s white breast.

The Nelson’s Sparrow also has a bright orange triangle on it’s face and breast. The orange on the breast goes down part way and ends abruptly at a well-defined white belly.   The crown is dark gray with a gray ear patch. It also feeds on the sand or climbing up into the grasses.

On Seabrook, I have mostly found the marsh sparrows in the back part of what used to be the old cut, in the grasses, at a higher tide. On a rising tide, they often pop up to the top of the grasses. The marsh sparrows feed mostly on the ground on insects, spiders, snails, seeds of grasses, and small marine invertebrates. They do this in the dense grass and at the edges of shallow pools.  During the Christmas Bird Count, we found over a dozen of them at Camp St Christopher, near Privateer Creek. The photos for this article were all taken on Seabrook Island by Ed. So keep your eyes out for these beautiful little sparrows. You need patience and your look may be brief, but well worth it!

If you would like to learn more about this bird visit:

Article submitted by:  Aija Konrad
Photographs provided by:  Ed Konrad

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

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