Unlike in much of Canada, White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is not a common bird in Newfoundland. While it is listed as a breeding species, its range on the island is restricted to the Great Northern Peninsula, nesting in the Long Range Mountains and at lower elevations on the crudely vegetated tundra from Flower’s Cove to L’Anse aux Meadows (probably the most accessible and reliable place to find one in season). In fact, during my own twelve or so years birding “on the rock”, I’ve only encountered a singing White-crowned Sparrow twice! The vast majority of sightings in Newfoundland are spring and fall migrants, heading to or from their breeding grounds in places like Labrador.
There are five subspecies (or races) of White-crowned Sparrow recognized, differing both both in geographical range and in subtle plumage differences. Not surprisingly, birds breeding in Newfoundland, and the vast majority of those migrating through, are of the eastern race – Z.l. leucophrys. However, on rare occasions individuals resembling the “western taiga” race (Z.l. gambelli, or “Gambel’s” White-crowned Sparrow) have been reported. I know of only three such records – all of which occurred in November or December, long after the majority of regular migrants have moved through. In fact, there have been only two winter records of White-crowned Sparrow in the past decade, and both have been identified as belonging to the “Gambel’s” race.
“Gambel’s” White-crowned Sparrow nests in the north from Hudson’s Bay west to Alaska, and differs from the eastern race in that it has pale lores (black in leucophrys), a brighter orange-yellow bill (pink or dusky in leucophrys), and a duller brown back (reddish brown and gray in leucophrys).
Separation is complicated somewhat by birds from the Hudson Bay area, where an intermediate population tends to show a mix of characteristics of both races. Immature birds are more difficult to identify, since eastern birds may show dull or pale lores similar to those of gambelii, however they often still have duller bills than their western counterparts (See two excellent discussions on David Sibley’s blog here and here). Birders in regions which see a mixture of the populations and/or from the Hudson Bay intermediate population during migration tend to avoid separating the races. However, since birds breeding in Newfoundland/Labrador tend to have the darkest bills, western-like birds with bright bills might be expected to stand out.
The first of the three apparent “Gambel’s” White-crowned Sparrows mentioned above was an immature first discovered at a feeder in Ferryland on December 7, 2007 and continuing throughout that winter. It was described by Bruce Mactavish as having “a surprisingly bright yellow-orange bill, unmarked lores and rich head stripe” – clearly differing from the individuals we typically see and resembling the western gambelli race. The second bird was also an immature, found and photographed in St. Lawrence on November 22, 2011. It too had unmarked lores and a bright bill – in fact, it was the yellow bill that made it stand out when Dave Brown first pointed it out to me that morning.
The most recent record, and only adult, is an individual currently visiting Roger Willmott’s backyard in Lumsden. While the only photos obtained so far may not clearly show the lores, they do appear to be pale and unmarked. However, the bright yellow bill stands out like a sore thumb in these photos, completely unlike typical eastern birds.
So, if you’re fortunate enough to spot a White-crowned Sparrow in Newfoundland – especially in late fall or winter – be sure to check it well. We have a lot to learn about the prevalence of individuals from the western “Gambel’s” race here in the easternmost reaches of North America.