SWAMP SPARROW

Melospiza georgiana georgiana, M. g. ericrypta

Status:  Common regular spring and fall migrant east and central, uncommon west. Uncommon regular breeder north-central, rare casual elsewhere. Rare regular winter visitor southeast, rare casual elsewhere.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM7526, 15 Dec 1889, Lincoln, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: Three subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997, AOU 1957): ericrypta, breeding from Northwest Territories and southeast British Columbia east to Newfoundland and Quebec, wintering California to Florida, georgiana, breeding from eastern South Dakota and central Nebraska to Missouri and east to New Brunswick and West Virginia, wintering to Texas and Florida, and nigrescens, breeding in coastal New Jersey to Maryland.

According to AOU (1957), georgiana breeds west to central Nebraska. Subspecies ericrypta occurs during migration (Rapp et al 1958; Johnston 1965). Wintering birds are thought to be northern breeders (erycripta?) replacing more southerly breeders (georgiana?) that depart in winter (Mowbray 1997). None of the UNSM specimens are identified to subspecies.

Spring:  Mar 15,17,17 <<<>>> May 25,29,31

Migration is from late Mar through mid-May, peaking around 20 Apr. Earlier dates may be birds which wintered nearby (see Winter). Late dates above are at locations where breeding was not known to occur.  Potential summering birds may not arrive in areas in the central north of the Platte River Valley until after northern migrants have passed through (Mowbray 1997).

Away from the east, migrants are rare and not often detected away from breeding sites. In the east they are more numerous and are often found in flocks with other sparrow species.

  • High counts:  25 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 21 Apr 2009, 14 there 23 Apr 2011, 12 there 20 Apr 2018, and 12 at Jack Sinn WMA, Lancaster Co 21 Apr 2018.

SummerAlthough AOU (1957) stated that this species breeds west to central Nebraska, it is “very local” in its distribution (Johnsgard 1979), occurring mostly in the north. Swamp Sparrow’s breeding range is not well defined in the state and is largely based on the presence of singing males at cattail marshes during the summer. Confirmed breeding records are few. Nesting occurred in Blaine Co in 1991 (Grzybowski 1991), Rock Co in 1985 (Williams 1985), and at Cody Lake, Cherry Co in 1988 (Grzybowski 1988). Mollhoff (2001, 2016) indicated little change between the two breeding bird atlas periods; in the first period, 1984-1989, breeding was confirmed mainly from the Loup River drainage north, in Brown, Rock, Loup, Wheeler, and Boone Cos, and in the second period, 2006-2011, in Rock and Valley Cos, as well as in the Platte River Valley in Hall and Lincoln Cos.

There are few reports from northeast Cherry Co; summering birds were found at Valentine NWR 29 May and 6 Aug 2016, and 27 Aug 2014.
There have been reports from Lincoln Co since 1948. Since 1991 there have been summering birds at a marsh on the Platte River near the North Platte Airport; this is the site of recent confirmed breeding (Mollhoff 2016). Ten singing males were along Whitehorse Creek in Lincoln Co 21 May 2005, two were in Lincoln Co 16 Jul 2017, and three were at Cody Park, North Platte 30 Jun 2018.

There are reports from the Lake McConaughy area in Keith Co since 1991; it was a regular summer resident in the Clear Creek Marshes and Lewellen area (Rosche and Johnsgard 1994, Rosche 1994). On 29-30 Jul 2000, 5-6 were at the west end of Lake McConaughy, seven were there 17 Jun 2001, and 11 on Jun 2007. A nest with six eggs was photographed there 11 Jun 2006.

Mollhoff (2016) showed scattered breeding season reports in the Panhandle, but no confirmed breeding. Such records are rare, but most likely in the western Sandhills in Garden and Sheridan Cos. It had been reported regularly from Smith Lake, Sheridan Co (Rosche 1982); nesting was suspected in 1982 (Williams 1982), and singing males were present in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2017, which is suggestive of breeding. There are no confirmed nesting records from Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co; one was singing there 10 Aug 1994 (Silcock and Rosche 1994). At least two were singing at the Diamond Bar Ranch pond, Logan Co 27 May 2017.

There is little evidence of current nesting in the northeast; birds seen 22 May 1994 in Knox Co were “maybe breeders” (Grzybowski 1994). Along the Elkhorn River Valley, three singing birds were at Wood Duck WMA, Stanton Co 13 Jul 2003 and one was there 2 Jul 2018, two were near Meadow Grove, Madison Co 6 Jul 2018, and there is another Stanton Co report 6 Jul 1988. One was in Dixon Co 14 Jul 2017.

South of the Platte River Valley, a small number of birds were found at Funk WPA, Phelps Co beginning 16 Jun 1991; best counts there were 20 on 5 Jul 1999 and 11 on 11 Jul 2002, but there have been no reports since 2002. A single bird was at Sacramento-Wilcox WMA, Phelps Co 7 Jul 2001, one was singing at Harvard WPA, Clay Co 20-25 Jul 2009, one was singing at Johnson WPA, Phelps Co, 5 Aug 2001, and 1-2 were at Tamora WPA and North Lake Basin WMA, both in Seward Co, 31 Jul 2017. It also breeds on occasion at Jack Sinn WMA, Lancaster Co; there is a report 1 Aug 1976 Lancaster Co.

  • Breeding phenology:
    Nest building: 24 May
    Eggs: 29 May-26 Jun
    Fledglings: 10-23 Jun

Fall:  Sep 13,15,16 <<<>>> winter

Migration is from mid-Sep through early Nov; six were banded at Chadron SP, Dawes Co 28 Sep-1 Oct 2014. There are a few earlier reports away from known breeding areas that are likely early fall dispersers: 30 Jul 2016 Douglas Co, 7 Aug 2015 Zorinsky Lake, Omaha, 11 Aug 1936 specimen UNSM ZM7533 Logan Co, 23 Aug 1986 Pierce Co, 27 Aug 1982 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 2 Sep 1936 specimen UNSM ZM7532 Logan Co, 4 Sep 1936 Lincoln Co (Tout 1947), and 6 Sep 1987 Polk Co.

There are numerous Nov-Dec reports and CBC reports are common in the southeast, where there are reports most years since 1967. Elsewhere there are reports for Keith, Lincoln, Boone, and Dakota Cos: 19 Dec 2009 North Platte CBC, 26 Dec 1987 Sioux City CBC (one; in Dakota Co), one on 27 Dec 1985 Beaver Valley, Boone Co CBC, two on the Harlan Co Reservoir CBC 15 Dec 2016 and another there 14 Dec 2017, and three reports of 1-2 on the Lake McConaughy CBC, Keith Co, 19 Dec 1991, 27 Dec 2014, and 29 Dec 2012.

Highest CBC count was 13 at Lincoln 17 Dec 1978.

There are numerous reports for Jan-early Feb of birds attempting to winter, including one at Branched Oak Lake, Lancaster Co 2002-2003 that was seen through 21 Jan, and a hatch year bird banded and photographed 16 Jan 1993 in Hall Co. Midwinter (10 Feb-10 Mar) reports are discussed under Winter, below.

Notable lingerers away from the southeast include 18-19 Dec 1992 Keith Co (Rosche 1994), 27 Dec 1985-1 Jan 1986 Boone Co, 29 Dec 1964 Scotts Bluff Co, 30 Dec 2000 Lake Ogallala, Keith Co, 1 Jan 1957 Lincoln Co, 22 Jan 2000 Niobrara Marsh, Knox Co, 25 Jan 1996 Lake Alice, Scotts Bluff Co, and Stateline Island WMA, Scotts Bluff Co 7 Feb 1997.

  • High counts: 35 at Little Salt Fork Marsh, Lancaster Co 9 Oct 2016, 30 at Neale Woods, Douglas Co 15 Oct 1999, 24 in Lancaster Co 15 Oct 1996, and 24 in Platte Co 2 Oct 2006.

Winter:  Swamp Sparrows linger late in fall unless very cold weather pushes birds farther south; reports into late Jan and early Feb are not unusual but reports of overwintering are few. As many as five wintered at Pawnee Lake, Lancaster Co 2013-2014, wintering birds were reported from Douglas and Sarpy Cos 1987-88 (Williams 1988), and one was wintering in Lincoln Co 1976-77 (Williams 1977).

Late winter reports (10 Feb-10 Mar), including two from the Panhandle, some possibly wintering, are of five on 13 Feb 2013 Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co, 14 Feb 2018 North Platte, Lincoln Co, 16 Feb 2013 N.P. Dodge Park, Douglas Co, 17 Feb 1964 Douglas Co, 27 Feb 2011 Fontenelle Forest, 16 Feb 2009 Indian Cave SP, Richardson Co, 20 Feb 2000 Kiowa WMA, Scotts Bluff Co, 1-2 on 22-26 Feb 2012 Lancaster Co, 2 Mar 1981 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, 3 Mar 2006 Rock Creek Lake SRA, Dundy Co, 3 Mar 2010 Schramm SP, Sarpy Co, 5 Mar 1999 Neale Woods, Douglas Co, three on 9 Mar 2016 Jack Sinn WMA, Lancaster Co, 9 Mar 2016 Lake Wanahoo, Saunders Co, and 10 Mar 1996 Otoe Co.

Abbreviations

CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)

Acknowledgement

Photograph (top) of a Swamp Sparrow at Papillion, Sarpy Co 16 Apr 2016 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.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1988. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 42: 1308-1310.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1991. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 45: 1132-1134.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1994. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 48: 313-315.

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.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, 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.

Mowbray, T.B. 1997. Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America A.F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.  https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.279.

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.

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.

Rosche, R.C., and P.A. Johnsgard. 1984. Birds of Lake McConaughy and the North Platte River Valley,  Oshkosh to Keystone. NBR 52: 26-35.

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

Williams, F. 1977. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 31: 346-348.

Williams, F. 1982. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 36: 992-995.

Williams, F. 1985. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 39: 931-933.

Williams, F. 1988. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 42: 282-286.

Recommended Citation

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


Birds of Nebraska – Online