Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Nelson's Sparrow - Ammospiza nelsoni
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General Comments In 1995, the Sharp-tailed Sparrow was split into two species, instead of a potential three species. The awkward common names still retained "Sharp-tailed" in the name -- Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Thankfully, in 2009, the redundant "Sharp-tailed" was eliminated. The Nelson's Sparrow is comprised of both inland (mainly in central Canada) breeding populations and one in the Canadian Maritimes and the northeastern United States. All populations winter in salt and brackish marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In North Carolina, it is a scarce migrant inland, but it is a numerous species along the coast in winter, where it mixes with both the Saltmarsh Sparrow and the Seaside Sparrow; sometimes, all three species can be "squeaked up" into a single bush in the marsh. Numbers of the Nelson's Sparrow do not seem to have declined appreciably, as have many other grassland and marsh species.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S4N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter resident coastally, and transient inland. In winter, fairly common to common along the southern half of the coast (south of Cape Lookout), and fairly common northward along the coast. Also, scarce (uncommon?) in brackish marshes fringing the inner portions of Pamlico Sound; poorly surveyed in these "inner" marshes. Away from tidal marshes, casual to very rare in fall (includes several records of tower-killed birds in Bladen), and unknown in spring. Mainly mid-Sep to late May, and a few lingering into Jun; despite the lateness of departure, it does not nest in the state. Peak counts:
Piedmont Transient, scarce. Very rare fall migrant, with the few records between 10 Sep and 14 Oct, with the exception of one seen by many at Lake Crabtree (Wake) from 1-4 Nov 2023. Surprisingly, just one known spring record: one at McDowell Nature Preserve (Mecklenburg), 14 May 2017. Peak counts: 3, Rea Farms, southern Mecklenburg, 10 Oct 2020; 1, on all other dates. [These records include both Nelson's and "Sharp-tailed Sparrow" prior to the 1995 split, as the likely form of that pre-split species to occur inland is Nelson's.]
Mountains Transient, scarce. Very rare in spring and fall. In spring, eight records -- 2 at Swannanoa, 25 May 1934 (collected); 1 at Highlands, 15 May 1976; 1 at the Western Carolina University campus in Cullowhee (Jackson), 19 May 2013; 1 at the Western Carolina University campus, 12 May 2017; 1 in Fletcher (Henderson), 30 Mar 2020; 1 (different bird?) at this last site on 26 Apr 2020; 1, Owen Park (Buncombe), 14 May 2022; and 1, along Pisgah Fish Hatchery Road (Transylvania), 16 May 2022. In fall, eight records/reports: 1 at Boone, 25 Oct 1976; 1-2 at Hooper Lane (Henderson), 8-16 1999; 1 at Hooper Lane on 11 Oct 2012; 1 in Brevard (Transylvania), 11 Oct 2012; 1 at Hooper Lane on 5 Oct 2015; 1 at Warren Wilson College (Buncombe), 10-11 Oct 2019; 1 at Biltmore Estate (Buncombe), 19-20 Oct 2019; and 1 at Brookshire Park (Watauga), 7-12 Oct 2021. In winter, one record: 1 at Hooper Lane, 15 Feb 2003. [These records include both Nelson's and "Sharp-tailed Sparrow" prior to the 1995 split, as the likely form of that pre-split species to occur inland is Nelson's.] Peak counts: 2, see above.
Finding Tips The species is usually easy to find, especially at high tide, in marshes at Fort Fisher near the Aquarium or Federal Point, at Fort Macon SP, or along the Morehead City -- Beaufort causeway. Though the birds "are there" in such marshes in the cooler months, it can be difficult to get them to pop up into a bush or to otherwise obtain identifiable views, especially as the Saltmarsh Sparrow is very similar, and Seaside Sparrow is also present and potentially confusable if not seen well.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-11], LeGrand[2023-03-31], LeGrand[2022-09-14]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.