A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


A rare sparrow in Sonoma County. Sporadic records exist in the winter and early spring months, but this bird is mainly seen--if seen at all--in August, September, October, or November, when an occasional fall migrant passes through. Most historical records are for the Bodega Bay area, but Clay-colored Sparrow has been noted from time to time in neighboring Napa and Marin Counties. Normal summer range is in the northern mid-continent states and into Canada. Winters in Mexico and further south. In its normal range, may flock with Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) or Brewer's Sparrows (Spizella breweri). In Sonoma County, however, all records are for single birds, according to Birds of Sonoma County California.

Identified by its clear, slightly buff-colored breast; finely black-striped brown crown with pale center stripe; ear patch clearly outlined above and below with darker feathers; dark streak below the malar region; and the collar of grey that goes all the way around the back of the neck. Pale above the eye and at the lores. Pale, pinkish bill, but upper mandible often darker. Similar to Chipping Sparrow, a more common bird in the county, but Chipping Sparrow is usually present here during the summer months and tends to stay in exposed areas along the inner and outer coast ranges, at higher elevations. Chipping Sparrow has a distinct, dark line through the eye, a dark bill, and, in breeding plumage, a rufous crown. The Peterson guides note that in the more similar winter plumages, the rump is brown in Clay-colored Sparrow and grey in Chipping Sparrow, both without streaking, and Sibley notes the same. However, the Clay-colored Sparrow pictured here has a grey rump with light streaking, so, as usual, these generalizations have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Selected county sightings: Carmody Rd. (Sep 26-30, 2012, Alan Wight); Bodega Head (Sep 13, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Campbell Cove (Sep 7, 2012, Dan Nelson); Reclamation Rd. (Nov 8, 2011, Lisa Hug); Shollenberger Park (Sep 22-26, 2011, Brent Campos); Tolay Lake Regional Park (Aug 31, 2011, Gene Hunn)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 113

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 456

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 412

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 468

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 594-595

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 588

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 422

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 350

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 247, 261-266 (general comments on genus Spizella sparrow identification), 263

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 425, 434-440 (general comments on genus Spizella sparrow      identification), 439

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 298

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 67

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 298

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 332

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 322

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 413

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 665

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 401

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--No recording



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Shollenberger Park, Petaluma, September 26, 2011

Clay-colored Sparrow, Shollenberger Park, September 26, 2011

Note fine black streaking on crown

Clay-colored Sparrow

Spizella pallida

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013