Cochise County Birds: The Black-throated Sparrow, Amphispiza bilineata (Desert Sparrow)

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We first mistook the black-throated sparrow, Amphispiza bilineata, for a chickadee. However, this Cochise County desert sparrow is no chickadee. There are seven varieties of chickadee, but the little bird perched on the bush outside my office window wasn’t any one of them.

Any photograph taken through the window glass under the lighting present at that moment produced an interesting effect, almost like an oil painting. That’s not only pretty cool, but it provided the only chance of catching this alert, flighty feathered desert dweller on camera.

Arizona sits right smack in the middle of the black-throated sparrow’s range, which runs from Mexico on up to southern Oregon (south to north) and from Texas to California (east to west).

Mostly, it hangs out in dry desert country.

Bird-friends.com offers this description:

The black-throated sparrow is well suited to its desert habitat. Studies have shown that this bird has a great tolerance for heat and drought. During the hot months of late summer and early fall, it maintains itself on dry seeds and water holes. After it rains, these sparrows gather into small flocks and feed on vegetation and insects, which provide all the moisture they need.

That’s pretty impressive. They must have super-efficient kidneys, something like kangaroo rats possess.

The bold, attractive look of the black-throated sparrow, photographed on December 17, 2013, in southern Cochise County, Arizona.

The bold, attractive look of the black-throated sparrow, photographed on December 17, 2013, in southern Cochise County, Arizona.

In the beginning, I had a bit of difficulty when it came to identifying the species. Frankly, that black throat looked more like a full, black beard to me.

Besides being a good looking bird, the desert sparrow exhibited a high degree of situational awareness. Despite the thermopane window between us being closed and the shutter mechanism on the Canon PowerShot SX 260 HS camera being a pretty quiet piece of machinery, he (or she; the sexes are similar in this species) was clearly aware of my presence behind the glass.

From time to time, he’d zero in on that strange contraption and stare right into the camera.

Clearly aware of the photographer standing behind the window glass, the black-throated sparrow (desert sparrow) looked straight into the camera from time to time.

Clearly aware of the photographer standing behind the window glass, the black-throated sparrow (desert sparrow) looked straight into the camera from time to time.

Where the sparrow had chosen to perch was interesting. On a bush, yes, but the specifics might have been important. It will take a number of additional sightings to see if it’s always this way…but the bird had “perched for defense”. That is, he was high enough up on the bush to provide an edge against ground-prowling predators, but not on the very top branch. Instead, he had a screen of branches behind him, covering his back while his head swiveled regularly to left, right, and front.

The black-throated swallow perches with a screen of branches covering his back while he scans the area to the left, right, and front.

The black-throated sparrow perches with a screen of branches covering his back while he scans the area to the left, right, and front.

This desert sparrow is also–or appears to be, at least–a very serious fellow, totally focused on paying attention to his environment. Life, he seems to be saying, is no joke.

This little desert sparrow is clearly serious about paying attention to his environment.  It seems unlikely a predator would find this species to be easy prey.

This little desert sparrow is clearly serious about paying attention to his environment. It seems unlikely a predator would find this species to be easy prey.

Besides situational awareness, the black-throated sparrow also possesses some serious wing speed. It’s seldom that I’m able to catch any of our small birds in flight; they don’t usually hang around while the photographer is fiddling with the camera, trying to line up the shot. But this time I got lucky. I was already in the process of pressing the button when the bird took off from its perch.

“I think I might have gotten that one!”

Thankfully, I had.

But it was late in the day, not long before sunset, so there wasn’t a lot of available light. As a result, the Canon PowerShot, set on Automatic as usual, tripped the shutter at the relatively slow speed of 1/80 second.

Take a look at this final photo. The black-throated sparrow’s body is blurred; the wings are nothing but blur.

Any human with hand speed like that sparrow’s wing speed could easily be an undefeated World Champion in the boxing ring.

The black-throated sparrow has just left his perch, rocketing down and out across the land in a blur of wings.

The black-throated sparrow has just left his perch, rocketing down and out across the land in a blur of wings.

An abundance of birds make their homes here on our acreage, just one mile north of the Mexican border. Not all of them stay for the winter, but quite a few do. One of the year around residents is the black-throated sparrow. The one shown in the photos on this page doesn’t show any sign of having a mate at present, but whether he’s a he or a she, single or married, we’re glad to have the company.

4 thoughts on “Cochise County Birds: The Black-throated Sparrow, Amphispiza bilineata (Desert Sparrow)

  1. Yeah, this one is definitely fun to look at. Looking closely (after the pictures were enlarged on the screen), it’s hard to believe I thought it was a chickadee.

  2. It’s definitely a beautiful bird. As to what it was thinking, I have no clue–but it didn’t seem alarmed at all, as it stayed perched for several minutes before flying off.

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