Lincoln's Sparrow, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, Hillsboro, Oregon on April 22, 2010 by Greg Gillson.
The Lincoln's Sparrow is a regular migrant through the Pacific Northwest in April and again October-November. Small numbers may be found through the winter. Breeding birds nest in high mountain meadows and snow-melt bogs in the Pacific Northwest.
Many newer birders have this species on their list of desired birds to see. There are two challenges to identifying sparrows. The first is to learn the names of the head feather tracts that are key in identifying the various species. Equally important is to learn the behavior of these birds to get a sufficiently diagnostic view.
Using the photo above as a guide, you can see that the Lincoln's Sparrow's upperparts are rather pale brown. The face is pale gray with an obvious buff-colored (yellow-brown) submustachial stripe. The throat and belly are white, but there is a buffy breastband with fine dark brown streaks.
If you haven't learned the feather tracts of a sparrow's head, now is the time. Some new birders seem reluctant to learn the head feathers of the sparrows. But it is really no different than teaching the parts of the face to a toddler: "eye, nose, chin, ear." So don't be afraid to learn these new terms.
From the top of the head, the Lincoln's Sparrow depicted above has a pale gray central crown stripe. Next is the brown lateral crown stripe. Below that is the wide gray eyebrow stripe (or supercilium). There is a thin brown eyeline back from the eye. This species has a subdued thin white eyering. The lore (area between eye and bill) is rather pale on this bird. On some species of sparrows the dark eyeline is continuous, from bill through the eye and back. Back and down from the eye is an area of feathers composing the ear coverts (or auriculars). In this bird they are pale brownish-gray.
There is a thin dark mustachial stripe from the base of the bill back under the eye and the bottom border of the ear coverts. Next under this is a key mark on Lincoln's Sparrow--a broad buffy submoustachial stripe (also called malar stripe). This is bordered on the bottom by another dark line called the lateral throat stripe. The throat is white with thin dark streaks.
Now let's compare with the common Song Sparrow of the Pacific Northwest....
Song Sparrow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on November 27, 2008 by Greg Gillson.
The Song Sparrow is rusty brown on dark gray, much darker-hued than the Lincoln's Sparrow. Notably, the submustachial line is whitish, not buff. The reddish-brown breast streaks are wide and densely placed on a gray or whitish background.
In short, the Song Sparrow is dark rusty and gray while the Lincoln's Sparrow is pale gray and buff.
While both these sparrow may sulk in the bushes, their response to pishing is starkly different. Pishing, if you did not know, is a means to attract birds by squeaking or making "psh-psh-psh..." sounds. Interspersing pygmy owl or screech owl calls into the pishing, also attracts some birds.
Pishing brings Song Sparrows out of the bush and right up into your face. Here they stay for as long as you keep it up.
On the other hand, Lincoln's Sparrows may pop up to the top of the bramble to give you a quick look. But then they fly down and away and do not respond again. Thus, it is much more difficult to see Lincoln's Sparrows, even when they are present. You have to identify them in your first, quick look.
Of course, you may identify sparrows by their voice. Sparrows sing, have a primary call note, and have a secondary call note that may be described as a "flight note."
Song Sparrows sing a song throughout the year with husky introductory notes and a loose trill, sounding similar to Madge, Madge, Madge! Put on your tea-kettle. The common call note is a loud chimp call. The flight note, often heard in the tall grass as you walk past is a very high, soft see note.
Lincoln's Sparrows have bubbly trills they sing in their mountain forest bogs in breeding season, but are rarely heard in the lowlands in migration. Their primary call note is a hard check note, similar to, but softer than, the note of the Sooty Fox Sparrow. The flight note of Lincoln's Sparrow is a high soft zeee, similar to Song Sparrow's note, but slightly buzzy. These "flight notes" are often given as a response to a predator or given by birds hiding in the blackberry tangles as you walk past.
Now, given these identification and behavioral tips, you may be better able to find and correctly identify Lincoln's Sparrows.