Ipswich SparrowNature

The Ipswich Sparrow

The illustration above is by William Stone, frontispiece of The Ipswich Sparrow (Ammodramus Princeps Maynard) and its Summer Home, by Jonathan Dwight Jr., 1895. The Ipswich Sparrow, now identified as Passerculus sandwichensis princeps, is a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow, but somewhat larger and paler in color. The bird is a migrating winter visitor along the East Coast and breeds almost exclusively on Sable Island off of Nova Scotia. In the winter it is found on sand dunes along the Atlantic Coast as far south as Cape Hatteras.

In early December 1868, 23 year-old naturalist Charles Johnson Maynard collected a sparrow on Ipswich Beach (now known as Crane or Crane’s Beach) and published his find as a Baird’s Sparrow after the carcass was identified as such by Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institution. After collecting two more of the sparrows on the beach in 1871, Maynard became convinced that it was a previously unidentified species closely related to the Savannah Sparrow, which he named Passerculus princeps.

Modern DNA sampling shows no indication of a separate evolutionary track from the Savannah Sparrow, which has 17 identified sub-species, suggesting that the larger size of the Ipswich Sparrow and its lighter plumage are due to natural selection from geographical isolation in the dunes along the East Coast. Savannah Sparrows are brown above with black streaks, and white below with thin brown or black streaks, and have a small yellow patch on the face. The Ipswich Savannah Sparrows are larger with paler coloration. The Ipswich and Savannah sparrows can be easily distinguished from the common and more darkly-colored House Sparrow, which is found in urban areas and back yards throughout New England.

Ipswich Sparrow
A banded Ipswich Sparrow at Crane Beach in December, 2020. Photo posted by Nathan Dubrow to the Ipswich Sparrow Facebook group.
banded Ipswich sparrow
Banded Ipswich Sparrow, photographed by Marjorie Felton Watson at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge in November, 2021 at to the Ipswich Sparrow Facebook group
Ipswich sparrow
An Ipswich Sparrow posted on the Ipswich Sparrow Project on Facebook. Identified by Margjorie Felton Watson at Salisbury Beach S.P. in January, 2022.
Ipswich Sparrow
Ipswich Sparrow, photo by Bo Zaremba, courtesy of Jim Berry. In the spring and summer, they have a yellow stripe near the front of their eyes
Ipswich Sparrow
Ipswich Sparrow photo by Len Medlock, courtesy of Jim Berry. Males and females have pale grey plumage with thin brown streaks and and are light-gray below.
Ipswich Sparrow
Ipswich Sparrow in beach grass, photo by Erik Nielsen, courtesy of Jim Berry
Salt Marsh Sparrow
The Salt Marsh Sparrow shares the same habitat as the Ipswich Sparrow. Photo courtesy Brian Henderson

The migratory and wintering periods of the Ipswich Sparrow are accompanied by significant cyclic mortality. The Ipswich Sparrow demography project bands Ipswich Sparrows in Canada and the USA with colored leg bands and tiny vhf transmitters to aid in their individual identification and conservation. The sparrows can be observed in grassy coastal sand dunes in the eastern USA from November – April. Locally. Reports of banded sparrows should be submitted to ipswichsparrows@gmail.com or the Ipswich Sparrow project on Facebook.

Although they both live in salt marshes, the Ipswich Sparrow is not difficult to discern from the Salt Marsh Sparrow, a slightly smaller bird with darker brown and orange coloration, somewhat similar to a Nelson’s Sparrow.

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