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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Longspurs: More often seen than recognized

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

The Lapland longspur is often seen but not so often recognized — and not because it's an uncommon bird. At this time of year in open country, it may be one of our most abundant birds.

It also is a flighty one, showing up here and there and now and again; not regularly in any one place but likely to show up almost anywhere.

Encounters often are accidental, in other words. Many occur along roadsides, where longspurs sometimes occur in large flocks. Any attempt to get a good, long look at the birds — such as slowing down or stopping the car — sends the bird fleeing into the fields, where they blend almost perfectly with winter stubble.

To make identification still more complicated, longspurs often occur in mixed flocks. The longspurs will stand out if their fellow travelers happen to be snow buntings, as they often are. Snow buntings appear lighter, and the longspurs stand out as darker individuals.

A dark individual in a flock of birds isn't necessarily a longspur, however. Horned larks travel with snow buntings, as well, and like the longspurs, they are darker than the buntings. They do provide one good clue to identification though, but it takes a quick eye. When horned larks take to the air, the outer tail feathers appear white — almost invariably.

The field guides tell us that longspurs have white feathers in the tail, as well, but they are seldom on full display. Instead, they're usually seen in birds settling down — braking, so to say, rather than those accelerating.

One more complication arises, and that is the amount of time longspurs spend in our area, and when it occurs. The Red River Valley is a kind of Riviera in the longspur's universe. They are northern birds — Arctic, actually. This is implied in the name, of course.

Being from Lapland doesn't help with identification, however.

Neither does the other part of the name, longspur. This refers to the extraordinary claw at the end of the rear-facing, or hind, toe. It's a "long spur." This reference is included in the bird's Latin name, Calacrius.

The longspurs are seedeaters, a preference reflected in their short, conical bills. They are closely related to the buntings, and in their habits they closely resemble the snow bunting. In fact, European bird enthusiasts refer to this bird as the Lapland bunting.

This is the only longspur species found in Eurasia; other species are strictly American. One of these, the chestnut-collared longspur, is native to the Northern Plains; the other, Smith's longspur, nests in northwestern Canada and Alaska. A closely related species, called McGown's longspur, has recently been placed in a separate genus.

The longspurs are ground-loving, and their feathers are earth-toned — other obstacles to identification. A longspur at rest is hard to see, especially in winter plumage.

In breeding plumage, longspurs typically show black in the throat and chest and chestnut or rust color on the nape and the epaulets — in other words, on the back of the neck and the part of the wing equivalent to the shoulder. Traces of these brighter colors remain, but a larkspur in winter is a paler, more plain bird than a longspur in summer.

North Dakota is at the northern edge of the usual winter range of Lapland longspurs. Most go farther south, spending the winter in Nebraska and Kansas and sometimes as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Like other species that nest in the Arctic, longspurs are in a hurry; they don't wait for the snow to melt to begin moving northward. Numbers in our area typically begin to build in early March and peak by April 1.

Southbound migrants generally pass throughout our area in October.

This doesn't rule out a longspur encounter in midwinter, however; I saw a flock on a bitterly cold day in late February. Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, reported finding snow buntings and longspurs near Grand Forks about the same time.

The Lapland longspur is regarded as the most numerous bird species in the Arctic, so it stands to reason that large numbers of them must pass through our area. Winter is a tough time for chance encounters with birds, and for that reason, more of my chance encounters have occurred in the fall, often walking along rural roads. The most memorable occurred within half a mile of our place west of Gilby, N.D., on a chilly October evening. A large flock — I imagined there were several hundred at the time — lifted from the margin of a stubble field and wheeled off before settling into the stubble. So well hidden were they that I could not find a single one despite a diligent search with binoculars.

Other species of longspurs have not fared so well. Chestnut-collared and McGown's longspurs are dependent on shortgrass prairie habitats in the center of the continent, and there's getting to be less and less of that.