Adult The back and scapulars are mottled with brown, blackish-brown, grey, and rufous and sport bold buffy stripes; the rump is buffy-brown with some blackish-brown, rufous, and grey mottling, but appears plainer and browner than the heavily patterned back and scapulars. The upperwing coverts are mottled with buff and dark brown and the flight feathers are grey-brown with narrow buffy or rufous-buff feather edges; the edges of the tertials are pale buffy-white to whitish. The relatively short, slender, rounded tail is brown to buffy-brown; the tips of the narrow tail feathers are pointed, giving the tail a spiky appearance. The belly and undertail coverts are whitish and the breast, sides, and flanks are rich buff to yellowish-buff; the sides of the breast, sides, and flanks are heavily streaked with narrow blackish-brown streaks, sometimes with a few faint, narrow, brown streaks extending across the breast. The broad face is primarily rich buff or orangey-buff, with blackish-brown stripes down each side of the forehead and crown (isolating a whitish-buff central crown stripe), a narrow blackish-brown post-ocular stripe along the top edge of the buffy-grey ear coverts, buffy-grey lores, and a greyish nape with extensive purplish or chestnut streaking; there is a narrow buffy eye-ring that is slightly paler than the remainder of the face. The iris is dark, the short, conical bill is blue-grey to pinkish-grey with a dusky culmen, and the legs and feet are pink.
Juvenile This plumage is held until late fall (September-November) of the first year. It is very similar to the adult plumage, but is overall buffier and less contrastingly marked and has more distinct blackish-brown streaks across the breast and heavier streaks on the sides and flanks.
Measurements Total Length: 13-13.5 cm Mass: 12.5-15 g
The small size, short spiky tail, small bill, and flat, sloping forehead are characteristic of the genus Ammodramus and allow for relatively easy separation from most other sparrow genera. Only the larger Savannah Sparrow is structurally somewhat similar, but that species lacks the extensively buffy-yellow plumage of the Le Conte’s Sparrow, is much more heavily and uniformly streaked, and has a very different face pattern. Grasshopper Sparrow, which may overlap in range with Le Conte’s Sparrow as a vagrant, is slightly larger and overall buffier (less yellowish-buff or orangey-buff) with a plainer face pattern, greyer supercilium, and (in adult plumage) almost unstreaked underparts. Juvenile Grasshopper Sparrow is more similar to juvenile Le Conte’s Sparrow, but is paler and greyer, with fine streaking throughout the face.
Both adult and juvenile Le Conte’s Sparrows are most similar to similarly-aged Nelson’s Sparrows, which occur in the same habitats as Le Conte’s Sparrows in the Peace River area of northeastern B.C. Adult Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow is brighter orangey or ochre-buff on the supercilium, throat, breast, sides, and flanks (Le Conte’s is paler yellowish-buff, especially on the breast, sides, and flanks). Furthermore, adult Nelson’s Sharp-tailed has a pure grey collar across the nape and sides of the neck (this area is greyish with heavy purplish or reddish-brown streaking in Le Conte’s). The streaking on the underparts of Le Conte’s Sparrow is sharper, darker, and more extensive than that of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, which has narrow rufous-brown streaks that are most prominent on the rear flanks. Finally, the back and scapulars of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed sport several narrow white lines that contrast sharply with the otherwise relatively dark rufous-grey upperparts and wings. Juvenile Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are overall bright orangey-buff (darker and more orange-toned than the buffy juvenile Le Conte’s Sparrow), with minimal streaking on the breast, sides, and flanks (underparts more heavily streaked in juvenile Le Conte’s).
The distinctive song of this species is a fine, hissing, unmusical buzz that is preceded by one or two short, clipped notes: tik-tik-a-tshhhhhhhhhhhht; the quality of the song is wiry and thin, with a characteristic ‘insect-like’ tone. The song is reminiscent of the songs of several other Ammodramus species, but is higher-pitched and thinner than that of Nelson’s Sparrow (which also lacks the sharp introductory notes) and Grasshopper Sparrow. This species sometimes gives a flight song (also given from a perch) that consists of several chipping and slurred notes followed by the typical hissing song. The typical call note is a sharp, high, thin tseeez or tsip. The alarm call is a low, ticking chip that is often doubled.
Courtship Males sing during the breeding season, presumably to attract mates as well as to establish territory boundaries. Most birds sing persistently from a low perch within dense grasses or sedges, although some birds perch on higher, more exposed perches in low willows and other shrubs or on tall grasses. Occasionally, males engage in a ‘song flight’ in which the singing male will briefly fly up above the territory and then abruptly return to a perch that is near the original take-off point.
Nest This species often nests colonially, presumably because of the localized distribution of suitable nesting habitat. The well-concealed nest is built in early to mid-June and is placed on or just above the ground (to 20 cm in height, but usually <10 cm) within a dense tussock of dry grass or sedges. The nest itself is a small, compact cup ~6 cm wide and ~3 cm deep and is composed primarily of dried grasses, sedges, and rushes and is lined with finer grasses (rarely lined with hairs).
Eggs A single clutch of (3) 4 (5) eggs is laid in mid-June and is incubated by the female for 11-13 days before hatching. The smooth, somewhat glossy eggs are pale bluish-green to greyish-white and are heavily speckled with fine brown or cinnamon spots and blotches (usually concentrated at the larger end). Eggs are likely present in B.C. primarily in mid- to late June. This species is a relatively frequent host for Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism.
Young The young are altricial and downy upon hatching, with pale pink skin and sparse, dull brown down. They are tended by the female and remain in the nest for ~9 days before fledging. They probably remain with one or both parents for a short period after fledging, but this has not been documented. Nestlings and dependent fledglings are likely present in B.C between late June and mid-July.
Source: Baicich and Harrison (1997); Campbell et al. (2001); Lowther (2005)
Like other members of its genus, the Le Conte’s Sparrow is notorious for is secretive habits. Foraging birds typically remain on the ground or low in the vegetation, and are usually concealed within dense sedges and grasses. They move mouse-like through this habitat searching for a variety of small insects and other invertebrates, and will consume small seeds when they are available (primarily outside of the breeding season). When flushed from this habitat, this species often flies weakly low over the vegetation for a short distance before abruptly dropping back into cover. This species typically forages alone or in pairs on the breeding grounds. It does not form flocks and rarely joins mixed-species sparrow flocks during migration, preferring to migrate alone.
Source: Lowther (2005)
This species occurs almost exclusively in wet, grassy areas such as moist hayfields, wet meadows, marshy lakeshores, overgrown clearcuts, airstrips, sedgy bog edges, and grassy ditches, usually where there are extensive tall grasses or sedges and either shallow water or a moist substrate (although this is not an absolute requirement). There are often small, scattered shrubs around the habitat that are used as song perches. Migrants and vagrants are found in a slightly wider variety of habitats, including dry weedy fields, salt marshes, and estuaries, but still tend to occur in habitats that resemble those occupied on the breeding grounds.
Source: Campbell et al. (2001); Lowther (2005)
Breeds locally from British Columbia and the extreme southeastern Yukon east across Canada and the northeastern United States to southern Quebec, ranging south to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Michigan. It winters primarily in the south-central United States from Texas east to northwest Florida, and north to Missouri and southern Illinois.
Breeding Uncommon to fairly common in northeastern B.C. east of the Rocky Mountains, with the largest populations occurring in the Peace River area. It is also rare and irregular in central B.C. west of the Rocky Mountains, primarily in the Rocky Mountain Trench between Invermere and the Prince George area. Records of summering birds elsewhere in central and southern (primarily southeastern) B.C., some of which are in breeding condition, suggests that occasional breeding may be more widespread west of the Rocky Mountains.
Migration and Vagrancy Spring migrants arrive on the breeding grounds in northeastern B.C. in early to mid-May, with peak numbers occurring in late May. In the fall, most southward-bound migrants have left northeastern parts of the province by late July, although some may linger in the Peace River area into late August. Localized populations occurring west of the Rocky Mountains are present primarily in June and July, with early spring occurring in late May.
This species is a casual fall vagrant in the south-central interior (Okanagan Valley) and on the south coast (southern Vancouver Island, Lower Mainland) between September and November, with most vagrants occurring in October.
Source: Campbell et al. (2001)
Population and Conservation Status
This species is generally locally distributed throughout its range due to its narrow habitat requirements, particularly west of the Rocky Mountains, and breeding populations often appear at a particular location for only one year or a few consecutive years before abandoning the site. As a result, it is often difficult to assess the populations and distribution of this species and it remains a relatively poorly-known sparrow in B.C. Populations in B.C. and elsewhere across its breeding range generally appear stable and secure (perhaps even increasing in some areas), but due to its limited distribution in the province and dependency on such vulnerable habitats it is currently placed on the provincial ‘blue list’ as a species of special concern by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre.
Source: Lowther (2005)
This species is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. Within the genus Ammodramus, it is most closely related to Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows. It has hybridized on at least one occasion with Nelson’s Sparrow in North America.
Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC:
Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab
for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed:
2023-09-22 6:18:18 PM]
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