Friday, August 16, 2013

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored)

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Road in Utah County, UT

Several years ago (July 17, 2010) I enjoyed a full-day of birding with over 130 species on Deseret Ranch in northern Utah. The ranch is near the small town of Woodruff and owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It sprawls into five Utah counties and slightly into Wyoming. It has been listed as a Utah Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and Birdlife International. The ranch offers a wide range of habitats for birds and wildlife including low elevation canyons and streams, sagebrush-steppe, grasslands, wetlands, ponds, and mixed conifer and aspen forests at higher elevations. My tour guide for the day was Mark Stackhouse of Westwings Birding Tours. Mark spent many years in Utah and managed Salt Lake City's Tracy Aviary for some time before he moved to Mexico where he guides birding groups professionally to Utah, Mexico, and other locations. He's an awesome guide and shares expert information on wildlife, plants, ecosystems, and much more.

I was introduced to a number of life birds during my first trip to Deseret Ranch because I was new to birding. One of those life birds was the Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored subspecies) pictured below. We located it when Mark recognized its pleasant song and pointed us in the right direction. These birds are generally secretive and often sing from hiding places as shown below.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) on Deseret Ranch in Morgan County, UT
I want to embed the song of a singing male in this post, but I've not been able to find one that does justice to the song I've come to really enjoy. My next best idea for now is to provide a link to a page that will allow you to choose the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow song from a list of four subspecies. It's a strong and varied song. Click Here for a link to Cornell University's web page.

Since that first Fox Sparrow on Deseret Ranch I've sought them out each summer as they return to Utah for breeding. Fox Sparrows are currently divided into four subspecies:
  • Thick-billed (California) are primarily in California and southwest Oregon
  • Red (Taiga) winter in the southeast and breed far north across Canada and Alaska
  • Sooty (Pacific) reside and migrate along the western coasts of the US (including Alaska) and Canada
  • Slate-colored (Interior West) move from California eastward to the US and Canadian Rocky Mountain states and provinces during breeding season.
All of these sparrows breed where their ranges overlap so there are varying mixes of intergrades.  Slate-colored is the most commonly seen subspecies in Utah and the one featured in images of this post.

I've had a great deal of success finding these sparrows in the thick, brushy areas of Utah County mountains and canyons. The bird below was photographed near South Fork in Provo Canyon. This particular location is a small canyon that branches of the larger Provo Canyon. This particular location provides some brush-covered water with lots of hiding places.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) in South Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) in South Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
One of my favorite places to go for Fox Sparrows is along Timpooneke Road, a dirt and rock road that runs around the north end of Mount Timpanogos in Utah County.  Locals actually say "tim-pah-nuu-key" despite the spelling being "tim-poo-nee-kee". The road starts from Timpooneke Campground at an elevation of about 7400 feet. The campground is surrounded by dense aspen, fir, and spruce trees. About 2.9 miles from the campground conifers give way to Aspen and other deciduous trees and low but dense brush. That section of the road experiences rock slides and avalanches so I suspect that is why there are few tall trees. You can see the rock slide area coming from the upper left corner of the image below. I've found several singing males each summer along the short section of the road shown below.

Click Here to see a Google satellite image showing the Fox Sparrow locations at the base of the rock slide area.

The image below is the reverse direction of the image above. This is the view as you leave the rock slide area and make your way back past Aspen stands and into the conifers.

The bird below was photographed along Timpooneke Road on an overcast day. The low lighting muted the colors, but I liked the profile and the clear view of the bird's extremely long talons. I've not noticed such long toes on other sparrows.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
The image below was captured in the same area of the Timpooneke Road on a day when the sun was not hiding behind the clouds.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
I made my annual Fox Sparrow trip to Timpooneke Road on June 29th.  Several Fox Sparrows, including the one below, were singing away. I'm including this image to show the brown/rufous color of the tail and wings that contrast with the gray head and back.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
It was nice to see Fox Sparrows again. I hope to see a few more during the season before they return to their wintering grounds.


  1. Wow! Fox sparrows in Utah! I love this info and the photos. I have never seen the sooty subspecies but I have seen the red. Very nice post!

    1. Thank you, Kathie. Slate-colored is the only one I've documented so far. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the others. We did have a red one at Antelope Island State Park within the past year, but I didn't make the 75-minute drive to see it.