What do clay-colored, vesper, fox, tree, white-crowned and white-throated have in common? They are all types of sparrows that visit the Vineyard in the fall and winter. Now, if we add chipping, song, savannah, swamp, salt marsh and the rare grasshopper sparrows, which are our nesting species, we have quite a pile of sparrows. Most people, and even some birders, call this group of birds “little brown jobs.” The reason for this is obvious; a sparrow’s colors are primarily brown. This coloration makes sparrows difficult to tell apart. We have to use head marking and face pattern more than any other field mark to tell them apart, and often they are hunkered down in the grass and therefore hard to see.

In the past, sparrows were considered part of the finch family, which included more species than any other family in North America. Now, this big family has been split into three families — the finches, the sparrows and the tanagers. The sparrows belong to a family called Emberizinae. They were separated out due to two, what I would call minuscule, differences: 1. sparrows have an extra primary feather in their wing, and 2. they have an extra bone in their tongue. Bone in their tongue? What for? Seems this extra bone helps stiffen the sparrow’s tongue so it can firmly hold a seed while cracking it open with its characteristic cone shaped bills. Other characteristics which separate sparrows from other perching birds include the fact that male and female look alike. Sparrows build cup-like nests in bushes and trees relatively low to the ground and spend most of their lives on or near the ground.

Sparrows do not, however, eat seed year-round. They feed their young entirely on insects so they choose nesting areas near a ready source of bugs. The insects the sparrows catch are low-flying or crawling as you do not see sparrows flying after an insect like a warbler or flycatcher would. A short flight or hop is about all a sparrow will take to procure its grub.

Take time to study the sparrows at your feeder and around your yard to learn the subtle differences between these “little brown jobs.”

Bird Sightings

The Felix Neck Fall Festival will be held at Felix Neck on Nov. 29 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. There will be a showing of captive owls and many other activities.

Gus Ben David reports that on Nov. 12 he spotted his first dark-eyed junco under his feeder. On Nov. 13, his pine warbler that usually hangs around all winter returned. That evening Gus counted 15 wood ducks, which had landed in the field next to his home in Edgartown. The next day, the 14th, Gus was pleased to see a female purple finch at his feeder. Happy birthday Gus, we hear it is a big one, enjoy!

On Nov. 13, Ken Magnuson emailed that the snow goose had moved over to the Edgartown Golf Club. Jeff Bernier sent a series of nice shots of a swamp sparrow taken at the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary in Edgartown the same day.

Nov. 15, Jeff Bernier returned to the Sheriff’s Meadow Sanctuary and photographed a belted kingfisher and two American coots. Pete Gilmore birded several places on the Vineyard the same day. Off South Beach in Edgartown he counted 15 red-throated loons. At Whippoorwill Farm in West Tisbury he spotted a Lincoln’s sparrow and a house wren. At the Farm Institute he found 90 black-bellied plovers and one golden plover, 100 dunlin, a northern harrier and eight horned larks.

On Nov. 16, Penny Uhlendorf reported hearing a great horned owl calling west of Lambert’s Cove Road.

Allan Keith, Pete Gilmore and I birded Gay Head and Squibnocket the same day. At Gay Head we counted eight northern gannets, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks, a merlin, 216 American robins, both an orange-crowned and palm warbler, three chipping, one clay-colored, one vesper, and seven song sparrows, as well as two common grackles. Off the beach at Squibnocket we found eight harlequin ducks, 75 red-breasted merganser, 25 horned grebes and one red-necked grebe, 40 northern gannets and 20 great cormorants. In Squibnocket Pond we found 15 gadwalls, one American wigeon, one pied-billed grebe, a great blue heron, a hermit thrush and a swamp sparrow.

Nov. 17, Rob Culbert reported that the waterfowl are slowly but surely arriving at the head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs. He has counted 12 American wigeon, one pied-billed grebe and a greater yellowlegs flew over calling as he or she went. That same day, Nancy Weaver took a photograph of both black ducks and mallards feasting on the scallop shell pile near Maciel Marine.

Annie C. Lemenager announced that Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs now has a flock of 50 brant as of Nov. 18. In West Tisbury, Sioux Eagle sent a great photo of a tufted titmouse perched in a tree outside her home. Allan Keith called to say he had three green-winged teal and one ring-necked duck in his pond at Turtle Brook Farm in Chilmark. In his yard he has 14 dark-eyed juncos and a clay-colored sparrow.

Tom Rivers called on Nov. 19 to say that there is still an Eastern Phoebe in his Middle Road yard in Chilmark.

Please report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard Bird Hotline at 508-645-2913 (due to technical difficulties the Bird Hotline has been temperamental). If the phone doesn’t answer please email to birds@mvgazette.com.

Susan B. Whiting is the coauthor of Vineyard Birds and Vineyard Birds II. Her webite is vineyardbirds2.com.