Sunday, November 27, 2011

Searching for 'Spurs

I admit it, my blogging has suffered lately as it falls further down on my list of priorities.  I have made a personal resolution to post more, and I have a draft post half-written about my recent revisit to the Arizona Strip!  In the meantime, since I had a very nice morning of birding, I thought I'd jot a few lines about the experience of looking for longspurs (Spoiler: it's more than a few lines).

The most expected species of longspur in the LCRV (and across Arizona) is Chestnut-collared.  I picked up 2 or 3 migrant Chestnut-collars earlier this fall, all heard giving their distinctive "kiddle-diddle" call.  I knew the other three species would be much more difficult to pick up.  Lapland is rare anywhere in Arizona, but they probably occur annually in the LCRV.  McCown's, on the other hand, winters in southeast Arizona and turns up semi-regularly in central Arizona, but it is casual in the LCRV.  Smith's has not been recorded in the LCRV at all, although it has turned up at the Salton Sea.

Two days ago, while birding with Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson, we made a stop at some fields in the Mohave Valley that were recently plowed and covered in Horned Larks.  This is the perfect situation for Lapland Longspur--and not bad for McCown's, either.  Both species prefer bare ground (Chestnut-collared and Smith's prefer grass).  So today, dreaming of 'spurs, David and I returned to those fields ready to spend a day staring at dirt and gray birds.  We arrived at the fields around 10:00 and soon saw swarms of larks.  Driving down a few farm roads, we positioned ourselves in decent light fairly close to some lark flocks, and we began to scan.

My strategy for longspur searching goes something like this:
1. Find a field with a bunch of horned larks
2. Listen when the larks fly for longspur flight calls
3. Scan through foraging larks, looking for, well, anything that's not a lark
4. Look through flying lark flocks for longspurs flashing their distinctive tail patterns

It turns out that all those points have their challenges.  The Mohave Valley hasn't had large lark flocks until recently, when a number of the fields were plowed or harvested.  Listening for longspurs in a flock of larks can be the best way to find them, but of course you're trying to ignore the many little lark calls and hoping to pick out a rattle (which all four species do), the "kiddle-diddle" of Chestnut-collared, or the "pink" of a McCown's.  It takes some practice to pick out 'spurs visually, whether the birds are flying or feeding.  They tend to hunch down while they feed and hide behind clumps of grass or dirt.  In flight, the flocks twist and turn, but there's the chance to catch a glimpse of a distinctive tail pattern (all four species are different).

I was focusing on point #3, scoping through a lark flock looking for streaky skulkers, when a few birds flew in to join the flock.  As one of these birds banked, I saw a black-and-white tail with more white toward the body and a dark tip.  It wasn't a good enough view to tell if it was a McCown's or Chestnut-collared, but it was a longspur tail.  The bird soon came out from behind a clod of dirt and I noted a broad buffy supercilium with a hint of darker auriculars, a fairly plain face pattern.  Then it turned and I saw rufous lesser coverts: a McCown's Longspur!  David was able to see it and we studied the bird for a few minutes before the flock took flight and reshuffled.

David then walked down the road to scan another field full of larks, while I stayed to scan the same flock.  After a few minutes, another 'spur walked across my field of view.  This one was streaky, much streakier than the McCown's.  As it walked I noted a dark border to the auriculars and rufous greater coverts, and I called to David that I had a Lapland Longspur!  He ran up but the flock reshuffled before he was able to see the bird.  We continued scanning, hoping to spot it again, and soon David said that he had a Lap.  Looking in David's scope, I saw a different bird than the one I had seen--a much brighter individual with a black breast patch.

Within 20 minutes we had seen three longspurs, a Lapland and a McCown's!  We ended up staying for another hour, until the wind picked up and I couldn't see objects as single images anymore.  As lark flocks flew overhead, we heard short rattles of longspurs, and David saw a Chestnut-collared to add to the day's list.  Not a bad way to spend the morning!


  1. I want to go looking for longspurs! And venomous snakes. And rum.

  2. Sounds like a good time! As far as herps go, though, it's the venomous lizard I really want to see...