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Rufous-winged Sparrows are not widely distributed in this country. They are a species that lives mainly in northwest Mexico, on the eastern side of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). Their range extends just into the southern part of Arizona. Here, they occur sporadically, living in grasslands with mesquite.
Finding them can be difficult. To make matters worse, these little sparrows aren’t all that easy to identify. They closely resemble another sparrow species, the Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a species that is much more common. They also bear at least a superficial resemblance to juvenile White-crowned Sparrows. I’ve spent years looking for Rufous-winged Sparrows with no success at all.
I photographed dozens of sparrows last week during our stay at the Elkhorn Ranch. Many of the birds that I photographed were juvenile White-crowned Sparrows.
Indeed, I assumed that all of the sparrows with rufous crowns that I photographed were juvenile White Crowns.
It was only after I looked closely at my images that I realized that some of the birds that I’d photographed were of a different species.
Can you see the differences between this sparrow and the one in the previous image? They are subtle yet evident on close examination. The first bird has a yellow beak, typical of a White-crowned Sparrow. The second bird has a whitish beak that is a bit less pronounced than the first bird’s beak. The first bird has a faint broken white ring around its eye whereas the second bird has a clearly evident complete white eye ring. The first bird has a dark gray lateral stripe passing through and behind its eye. The second bird has a rufous eye stripe. The second bird has an obvious rufous patch on its shoulder. It also has a somewhat more slender profile than the first bird.
After a bit of study — and some comparison with images posted online — I realized that the second bird was my elusive Rufous-winged Sparrow. Here’s another image, different bird but same species. In this image the bird’s white eye ring is very obvious as is its pale beak.
Now, if the first bird had been a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, telling the two species apart would have been more difficult. There are some differences in head and facial plumage between the two species, but for me, the easiest way to distinguish the two is by the Rufous-winged Sparrow’s red shoulder patch.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400. The first and third images, f8 @ 1/1250; the second image, f8 @ 1/1600.