Saltmarsh Sparrow

Ammospiza caudacuta



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Definitive Basic Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Small ground-foraging sparrow, sexually monochromatic with an elongated, conical bill and a moderately short tail with distinctive, attenuated rectrix tips. Adults have a conspicuous orange-buffy eyebrow and malar; crown with an often weakly defined central gray stripe bordered by dark brown lateral stripes streaked with black. Throat whitish, with or without incomplete lateral stripes. Typically, a buffy chest band is present in fresh plumage. Breast, sides, and flanks are strongly streaked. Definitive Basic Plumage recognized by uniform wing and tail feathers of high quality without molt limits.

Saltmarsh Sparrow (upper right) and Nelson's Sparrow (bottom left).

Saltmarsh Sparrow is distinguished from all variants of Nelson’s Sparrow by strongly contrasting buff breast band, more orange tone of face triangle, and more strongly dark-streaked underparts, among other features.

Juvenile Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Juvenile plumage is a rich buffy color that is brightest on the eyebrow, malar stripe, and foreneck outlining the dusky ear coverts. Sides of neck, breast, and flanks are streaked with brown. Wing coverts and tertiaries broadly edged with yellowish buff, secondaries with russet, primaries and their coverts greenish, tinged olive gray, alula with white.

Juvenile Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Back is streaked with brown. Crown and wings nearly black; wing coverts and tertiaries broadly edged with yellowish buff. Tail olive brown, indistinctly barred, without white.

Formative Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Eyebrow and malar stripe broad, sharply defined, and dull ochre, with malar stripe curving upward behind gray ear coverts, separated from eyebrow stripe by a narrow dark brown or blackish postauricular stripe. Molt limit between replaced formative tertials and more-worn juvenile secondaries identified Formative Plumage; the bolder buff-orange wing bar may also be indicative of this plumage.

Formative Saltmarsh Sparrow in flight.

Marginal wing coverts in carpal area are pale yellow; remiges brown; greater secondary coverts edged with buff making an indistinct wing-bar. Retained juvenile primaries, primary coverts, and distal secondaries, contrasting with the replaced formative greater coverts and tertials, indicate Formative Plumage in October.

First Alternate Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Back feathers are a dark olive brown with scapulars and interscapulars broadly edged with buffy white, making conspicuous streaks. Note the three generations of tertials (juvenile, formative, and first alternate) and worn primaries, indicating age of this individual.

Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Typically, a buffy chest band is present in fresh plumage, but this band bleaches with feather wear and can become quite pale. In both conditions (fresh and worn), the band contrasts strongly with the triangle pattern on the head, and note also the distinct breast streaking. These features help separate Saltmarsh from Nelson's Sparrow.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, in spring.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, high tide. Waterford, CT.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, low tide. Waterford, CT.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, Stonington, CT.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, Stonington, CT.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow breeding habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Connecticut breeding habitat, in fall.

Example of Saltmarsh Sparrow overwintering habitat.

Saltmarsh Sparrow South Carolina winter habitat. Georgetown, SC.

Saltmarsh Sparrow with Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice).
Saltmarsh Sparrow vocalizing.

Sometimes sings on the ground or partly hidden in upper grass column.

Saltmarsh Sparrow perching.

When perching, sparrow often clings to vertical side of tall stems, holding its body close to the stem with the upper foot and flexed leg and bracing its body with the lower foot and extended outer leg.

Saltmarsh Sparrow perching.

Frequently supports itself straddled acrobatically between two erect, adjoining Phragmites culms, legs spread wide apart with feet grasping separate stems.

Saltmarsh Sparrow bathing.

Bathing involves dunking head and splashing water on feathers by fluttering wings rapidly, then standing and performing rapid wing-shuffling motions in crouched position that further wets body feathers.

Adult female Saltmarsh Sparrow starting molt with heavily worn plumage; note, nearly “tailless”.
Three Saltmarsh Sparrows (right) with Nelson's Sparrow (left).

Foraging Saltmarsh Sparrows may form loose flocks with Nelson’s Sparrows and Marsh Wrens. When pursued, these birds follow each other to different patches of tall vegetation.

Saltmarsh Sparrows interacting.

During male-male encounters, an individual may settle 0.5 m or less from another male that was unidentified at a distance. They stand with sleeked plumage, bill tilted up, and stare for a few seconds until one of them turns and disappears into the grass or flies off. Contact seems rare, but one male frequently takes over a perch occupied by another.

Saltmarsh Sparrow nest.

Nests in tidal marshes, primarily in saltmeadow (supratidal high marsh above mean high water) zone dominated by Saltmeadow Cordgrass (Spartina patens). Nests are elevated above the substrate in the grass column, where some are sufficiently high to escape flooding.

Saltmarsh Sparrow nest with five eggs.

Nest ordinarily a simple cup. All nests elevated above ground substrate, and supported by graminoid stems along sides of nest, and sometimes by underlying semi-erect thatch. Structure variable, sometimes thin and flimsy but usually moderately bulky.

Saltmarsh Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Egg ground color typically greenish white to greenish blue with some variation in intensity; occasionally grayish-white or bluish. Surface profusely marked by fine, variable reddish brown speckling.

Saltmarsh Sparrow nest with four eggs.

Note possible brood parasitism; egg in upper right may be a cowbird egg.

Saltmarsh Sparrow chick that has climbed out of its nest during tidal flooding.

~5 day old Saltmarsh Sparrow chick waiting out high tide above its flooded nest.

Juvenile Saltmarsh Sparrow.

Juveniles generally remain on nesting ground until molt has completed, although local movements may occur.

Saltmarsh Sparrow (cover image).

Recommended Citation

Greenlaw, J. S., C. S. Elphick, W. Post, and J. D. Rising (2018). Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.