SAVANNAH SPARROW

Passerculus sandwichensis nevadensis, P. s. savanna

Status:  Common, locally abundant, regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Locally uncommon regular breeder west. Rare casual winter visitor south and east.

Documentation:  Specimens: nevadensis, UNSM ZM7285, 10 Oct 1885 Lincoln, Lancaster Co; savanna, UNSM ZM7279, 19 Oct 1901; oblitus, UNSM ZM10432, 9 Apr 1909, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: There are 21-28 recognized subspecies (Wheelwright and Rising 2008), including 7-9 restricted to Mexico and Central America. Wheelwright and Rising (2008) combined Pyle’s (1997) Western and Eastern groups with an additional two Pacific Coast subspecies as the Sandwichensis group of nine subspecies. In this group, the following subspecies occur in the Interior and eastern USA: anthinus, breeding northern Alaska and northwest Canada to British Columbia and northwest Manitoba, wintering southwest California to south Texas,  nevadensis, breeding from British Columbia to Manitoba and south to eastern California east to the Great Basin and northern Great Plains, wintering south to California and northwest Mexico, oblitus, breeding eastern Manitoba to Minnesota and Michigan, wintering Oklahoma and Texas east to Georgia, labradorius, breeding in the northern Great Lakes region east to Labrador, wintering south to Gulf States, and savanna, breeding in the southern Great Lakes region east to the Maritime Provinces and south to Iowa and New Jersey, wintering south to Florida.

According to AOU (1957), subspecies nevadensis breeds in western Nebraska, and apparently migrates through at least western and central Nebraska.  Swenk (Notes Before 1925) stated that most migrants in the Inland, Clay Co and Kearney, Buffalo Co areas were nevadensis, but a 14 Apr 1914 specimen was of an “eastern” subspecies, probably savanna. Bruner et al (1904) described savanna as “a rather abundant migrant especially eastwardly”; this subspecies breeds commonly in northern and eastern Iowa (Kent and Dinsmore 1996) and has been recorded rarely in winter in Kansas (AOU 1957; Johnston 1965). There is a specimen of oblitus taken in Lancaster Co 9 Apr 1909 (UNSM ZM10432); based on its breeding and wintering ranges, this subspecies should occur regularly in Nebraska.

Although as yet undocumented for Nebraska, it seems likely that the northern Great Lakes subspecies labradorius might occur in Nebraska as a migrant, as it winters south and west as far as southeast Texas (Pyle 1997). Rapp et al (1958) listed the Alaskan and western Canadian subspecies anthinus for Nebraska, presumably occurring as a migrant in the west. This subspecies breeds from Alaska to British Columbia, and so a few may migrate southward east of the Rocky Mountains as do other species breeding in the Pacific Northwest (e.g., Cassin’s Vireo, Townsend’s Warbler).

To summarize, breeders in Nebraska, which occur only in the northwest, are nevadensis, and it, along with  savanna and oblitus are the expected migrants through the state. Possible additional migrants, as yet undocumented, are labradorius in the east and anthinus in the west.

Spring:  Mar 7,8,9 <<<>>> May 25,26,29

Migration is from late Mar through early May; early dates above may involve birds which wintered nearby. The earliest dates with tangible evidence are of singles photographed in Kearney Co 3 Mar 2018 and 9 Mar 2008 and there is a specimen date 22 Mar 1902 Lancaster Co (UNSM ZM7291). Late May and early Jun dates are indicative of potential summering birds, especially in the northwest.

  • High counts:  250 in Fillmore Co 28 Apr 2002, 160 in Pierce Co 8 May 1999, and 72 in Butler Co 6 May 2017.

   Tout (1947) watched a flock of “thousands” 11 May 1938 in Lincoln Co. “Hundreds per mile of fence line” were seen in Nuckolls Co 20       Apr 2007.

Summer: The breeding range of this species barely reaches the northern and western edges of Nebraska (Johnsgard 1979); summering habitat consists of damp swales in grasslands (Rosche 1982). Breeding is documented from only a few locations in the Panhandle, although there are scattered summer reports from elsewhere in the state.

The first confirmed breeding record was of an adult flushed from a nest with four eggs in southern Sioux Co 15 Jul 1994 (Silcock and Rosche 1994); birds were present there for a few years but were absent in 2010 (Wayne Mollhoff, pers. comm.). There is a breeding record for Mitchell, northern Scotts Bluff Co (AOU 1957), and a specimen, UNSM ZM7288, collected at Mitchell 7 Jul 1916.  One was in Scotts Bluff Co 31 Jul 2010 and a singing bird was a few miles south of Mitchell 25 Jun 2014 in an area where suitable habitat exists.

A persistent location is the Hay Springs Creek area south and west of Hay Springs, Sheridan Co. Singing birds were found regularly three miles north of Walgren Lake and also about two miles west of Hay Springs from 1973 into the late 1990s, the latter location close to where Mollhoff found three pairs 11 Jun 2011; a breeding colony of six birds had established there by 12 Jul 2011 and 14 were present including four newly-fledged young 20 Jul (Wayne Mollhoff, pers. comm.). Four territorial birds were at the site 11 Jun 2013, one or two pairs 12 Jun 2015, and 1-2 territorial birds 21 May 2018.

Rosche (1994) considered a colony at Kilpatrick Lake, Box Butte Co to be the “largest colony known in Nebraska”; singing birds were known from this location as early as 1990 (Grzybowski 1990).

Breeding is likely at Fleisbach WMA, Morrill Co, where three were singing in wet meadows in 1987 (Williams 1987), one was in suitable breeding habitat 10 Jun 2007, and one was photographed singing 2 Jun 2016. Additional reports suggestive of breeding include “confirmed” breeding at Valentine NWR, Cherry Co 29 Jun 2006 although no details were provided, a site just east of Lakeside, southern Sheridan Co where birds were present four years out of 10 including 26 Jun 1981 (Richard C. Rosche, personal communication)., eight singing in sedge habitat alongside streams exposed by falling water levels at Lake McConaughy, Keith Co 2 May 2004 that may have been migrants, although singles were in the area 28 Jul 2001 and 5 Jun 2005, one at Fort Niobrara NWR, Cherry Co 8 Jul 1999, three singing in southern Holt Co 25 May 1991, another in Holt Co 26 Jun 2003, and a singing male in Dixon Co 26 May 2005. In 1982, Brogie and Mossman (1983) found no evidence of breeding in the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

There are a few late spring and summer reports from the east where breeding seems unlikely; Thompson et al (2011) stated that spring stragglers are found into Jun; some of these may be yearling females, which arrive somewhat later on the breeding grounds (Wheelwright and Rising 2008). These summer dates are: 31 May 1975 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 6 Jun 2016 Pawnee Prairie WMA, Pawnee Co, 30 Jun 1965 Gage Co, 14 Jul 1985 Polk Co, and “summer” 1993 Sarpy Co.

A BBA block in Dawson Co showing confirmed breeding (Mollhoff 2016) is a printing error (Wayne Mollhoff, personal communication).

Fall:  Aug 18,19,20 <<<>>> Nov 21,22,24

Migration occurs from late Aug through early Nov, with earlier dates from areas where breeding is unlikely 27 Jul 2010 Nebraska City, 28 Jul 1974 and 3 Aug 1987 Lancaster Co, 2 Aug 2006 Seward Co, 4 Aug 2000 Fort Robinson SP, Dawes Co, 9 Aug Keith-Garden Cos (Rosche 1994) and 10 Aug 1994 Garden Co.

Evidence that migration begins in early Aug was provided by the presence of one at a McPherson Co site 9 Aug 2011 where none were found earlier, and the apparent departure by 10 Aug 2011 of 12 of 14 birds seen earlier at a summering site near Hay Springs. The latest specimen date is 2 Nov 1907 Lancaster Co (UNSM ZM10444).

  • High counts:  500 in Hamilton Co 5 Oct 1996, 370 at Crescent Lake NWR 26 Sep 1996, 245 in Phelps and Kearney Cos 14 Oct 1995, and 200+ in Douglas Co 6 Oct 2003.

Winter:  There are two documented instances of overwintering in Nebraska. Up to six were at Branched Oak Lake, Lancaster Co 2011-2012, and there were four reports of what was probably a single individual at Boyer Chute NWR, Washington Co 26 Dec-20 Feb 2012-2013. Sightings in Jan-Feb are rare and probably indicative of wintering birds. During winter 2012-2013 there were several additional mid-winter reports: two were in Jefferson Co 22 Jan, one was photographed at Rowe Sanctuary, Buffalo Co 5 Feb, one was in western Seward Co 13 Feb, and one was in Dodge Co 26 Feb. One was in Omaha, Douglas Co 13-14 Feb 2014. Winter 2015-16 added three more Feb records: one was at Branched Oak Lake 4 Feb, two were at Boyer Chute NWR, and one was in Otoe Co 22 Feb. One was reported in Sarpy Co 19 Feb 2017.

The only other documented mid-winter reports are of singles in Nuckolls Co 25 Dec 2017, Keith Co 2 Jan 1999 (Jorgensen 2001), Washington Co 10 Jan 2005, Otoe Co 22 Jan 2004 (Brogie 2005), and Custer Co 26 Jan 2008.

There are reports from CBCs 16 Dec 2011 two at Branched Oak Lake-Seward, 17 Dec 1989 Lincoln, 17 Dec 2011 seven at Omaha, 18 Dec 1998 Harlan Co Reservoir, Harlan Co, 22 Dec 1977 six at DeSoto NWR, Washington Co, and 29 Dec 1964 two at Scottsbluff.

Savannah Sparrow winters on occasion in southern Kansas (Thompson et al 2011) and northern Missouri; Robbins (2018) noted that there has been a “dramatic” increase in wintering numbers in central and southern Missouri.

Abbreviations

BBA: Breeding Bird Atlas
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)

Acknowledgement

Photograph (top) of a Savannah Sparrow at Prairie View Lake, Douglas Co 5 Oct 2012 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Brogie, M.A. 2005. 2004 (16th) Report of the NOU Records Committee. NBR 73: 78-84.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1990. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 44: 1152-1154.

Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Johnston, R.F. 1965. A directory to the birds of Kansas. Miscellaneous Publication No. 41.  University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2001. 1999 (Eleventh) Report of the NOU Records Committee. NBR 69: 85-91.

Kent, T.H., and J.J. Dinsmore. 1996. Birds in Iowa. Publshed by the authors, Iowa City and Ames, Iowa, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rapp, W.F. Jr., J.L.C. Rapp, H.E. Baumgarten, and R.A. Moser. 1958. Revised checklist of Nebraska birds. Occasional Papers 5, Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union, Crete, Nebraska, USA.

Robbins, M.B. 2018. The Status and Distribution of Birds in Missouri. University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Silcock, W.R., and R.C. Rosche. 1994. Summer Field Report, June-July 1994, NBR 62: 102-116.

Swenk, M.H. Notes before 1925. Bird notes from A.M. Brooking of Hastings, C.A. Black of Kearney, and B.J. Olson of Kearney, based chiefly on their collections, up to January 1, 1925. Typed manuscript in the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Archives, University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.

Wheelwright, N.T., and J.D. Rising. 2008. Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.45.

Williams, F. 1987. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 41: 1455-1458.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2018.  Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org


Birds of Nebraska – Online